MI Supreme Court's ruling on juvenile lifers is stupid, expensive and will be overturned

Jul 9, 2014

There is a long-established principle that whenever state law conflicts with a federal law, the federal law prevails. That’s been established by a long string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, plus a little event called the Civil War.  

This is why, for example, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes could rule that the pensions of Detroit city workers and retirees could be cut, even though Michigan’s state constitution says they can’t be. Federal bankruptcy law prevails.

If this weren’t the case, it would mean that anything Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court did could be overruled by any state legislature, and our nation would become no more than a collection of 50 countries united in name only.

That’s something we all learned in civics class -- which makes the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision yesterday on life sentences for minors completely baffling.

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. However, some politicians who want to be seen as tough on crime, claimed this decision was not retroactive.

And yesterday, in a four to three vote, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with them. The justices ruled that minors who were sentenced in Michigan to life without the possibility of parole still have no chance of a hearing – if they were sentenced before the nation’s highest court’s ruling.

The vote was very close. The four justices in the majority were all Republicans. The two Democrats on the court disagreed. But so did Republican Justice Mary Beth Kelly. In a well-reasoned dissent, she wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court decision was written in a way that meant it clearly had to be applied retroactively.

Yesterday’s decision meant predictable celebrating by the attorney general and the friends and relatives of some who had been brutally murdered by juveniles. However, there was sadness among those who know people who made terrible mistakes long ago, and who think some deserve a second chance.

Well, I am not an attorney, but here’s a prediction. In due course, the federal courts will overturn yesterday’s state supreme court ruling; they can hardly do otherwise. Something is either constitutional or it is not. Federal law trumps state law.

Apart from that, this ruling is, besides unjust, irrationally stupid in that it will cost the taxpayers needlessly. Michigan is being drowned by the cost of our prisons – more than two billion a year.

That’s a bigger share of our budget than any other state spends, and far more than we spend on higher education. We also keep our prisoners behind bars longer than average.

Nobody is saying that every minor who committed murder should be put on the streets. Some, maybe most, should never be. However, we don’t have uniformly fair sentencing, and it is not fair to say their cases can never be reconsidered.  

Back when solid conservative Mike Huckabee was running for president, he said, “We’ve got to quit locking up those we are mad at and lock up (only) those we are really afraid of.”

That’s simple fairness and simple economics. Sometimes, the U.S. Supreme Court really does know best.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.