Lady Justicia holding sword and scale bronze figurine with judge hammer on wooden table

Arizona judges are free to sentence juveniles to what amounts to de facto life sentences despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings that appear to prohibit that, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously last Friday.

The justices insisted they were not ignoring what the nation’s high court has repeatedly ruled.

Instead, they said, those legal precedents involved juveniles who were sentenced to life behind bars without possibility of parole for a single crime.

 The Arizona cases that they wrote about involved juveniles sentenced to consecutive sentences for multiple crimes.

And that, wrote Justice John Lopez, means judges here handling juvenile cases are not bound by the U.S. Supreme Court precedent even though their consecutive terms amounted to the same thing.

Lopez and his colleagues took a slap at the nation’s high court for barring life sentences for juveniles in the first place, saying they were based on “judgments of other nations and the international community.’’

“Relying on a single study about the sentencing practices of other nations, the (U.S. Supreme) Court observed that the United States stood alone in subjecting juveniles to parole-ineligible sentences,’’ Lopez said.

That conclusion clearly did not sit well with the Arizona justices.

“We pause here to express our concern with the Court’s reliance on international laws and judgments to resolve an issue raised under the United States Constitution, particularly when they are invoked by the court to disregard the most reliable evidence of national consensus: the will of the American people as expressed through their state laws,’’ Lopez wrote. 

“Such implicit deference to foreign decisions runs the risk of ceding to foreign government what our laws and our Constitution mean, and what our policies in America should be.’’

Friday’s decision involved three cases:

  Martin Raul Soto-Fong, sentenced to three consecutive life terms for the 1992 robbery and triple murder at a Tucson El Grande Market. He will not be eligible for release until he has served 109 years behind bars.

  Wade Nolan Clay convicted of murder and attempted murder in Mohave County and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years and 12 years after that.

  Mark Noriki Kasic Jr.sentenced to consecutive prison sentencing totaling nearly 140 years after being convicted of six counts of arson and other charges stemming from a series of fires in Tucson garages and homes between 2007 and 2010.

Lawyers for all three petitioned for reduction of sentence based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the last decade which concluded there was a “national consensus’’ against imposing parole-ineligible life sentences on juveniles. 

The attorneys said that the consecutive sentences effectively became life terms.

Lopez acknowledged that the most recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling states that sentences of life without parole are barred “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.’’

But Lopez said he and his colleagues are interpreting that as not a categorical ban.

“It merely mandated that trial courts follow a certain process -- considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics -- before imposing a particular penalty,’’ he wrote.

Lopez also said nothing in those rulings say juveniles “must have a chance for reconciliation with society.’’

Then there’s the issue that the Arizona Legislature has never said that juveniles cannot be locked up for life.

Lopez said courts elsewhere which have held de facto life terms unconstitutional “have invariably usurped the legislative prerogative to devise a novel sentence scheme or otherwise delegated the task to trial courts to do so.’’

“Here, petitioners invite us to invade the province of the Legislature,’’ he said. 

Lopez, however, said the court has to act out of “our respect for the separation of powers, the will of our citizens and the principles of judicial restraint."

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