After passing up the issue several times, the Supreme Court agreed on Friday, December 12 to consider whether its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, limiting sentences of life without parole for minors who commit murder, applies retroactively—that is, to inmates whose conviction had become final before the ruling was issued. However, in taking on that issue, the Court also added a second question that might keep it from deciding the first one. The new case, Toca v. Louisianawas one of four cases the Court accepted for review; the cases are likely to be argued in late March or early April.

In taking on the juvenile case from Louisiana, the Justices said they would consider two questions: first, whether the limitation on sentences of life without parole in the Miller case applies retroactively “to this case”—that is, to George Toca’s case; and, second, whether a federal court can rule on a federal habeas claim that a state post-conviction court has erroneously refused to recognize that a Supreme Court criminal-law precedent applies retroactively. If the Court were to conclude that such a state court refusal does not raise a “federal question,” that might keep the Justices from ruling directly on the retroactivity question.

The Court issued its decision in Miller on June 25, 2012. The decision did not bar all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder that they committed as minors, but it did require states to tailor the review of such sentences to the individual involved. Since then, the Court has been asked several times—either by individual inmates or by state officials—to review whether that decision should apply to cases that were final before that date.  It has previously turned down each of those cases.

George Toca had just turned age seventeen in 1984 when he was arrested for the shooting of a youth said to be his best friend during a botched armed robbery. Toca was convicted of murder in the case and sentenced to life without parole under a state rule requiring that sentence for such convictions. He has often contended that he is innocent—a claim that his best friend’s family has supported.

Louisiana courts refused to apply the Miller decision to his case, on the ground that it had become final in state court before the date of that ruling.

In taking his case to the Supreme Court, Toca’s lawyers raised only the retroactivity issue. In responding to that appeal, the state suggested that the case also raised the separate question whether a federal question is raised at all when an inmate claims that a state post-conviction court had failed to apply a Supreme Court criminal-law decision retroactively.  The Court’s order accepted review of both issues.

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Lyle Denniston has been covering the Supreme Court for fifty-six years. In that time, he has covered one-quarter of all of the Justices ever to sit, and he has reported on the entire careers on the bench of ten of the Justices.

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