People serving life terms for murders they committed as teenagers were looking to the Supreme Court of the United States Tuesday for signals about whether they will have a chance to seek their freedom.
But the 75-minute high court argument in the case of a Louisiana man who has been imprisoned since 1963 ended with a distinct possibility that the justices could dismiss the case on technical grounds and perhaps take up another inmate's plea in the spring.
The court spent more time debating whether it has authority to hear the case of Henry Montgomery than it did considering the merits of his claim.
"We weigh in when we have jurisdiction," said Justice Antonin Scalia, suggesting that the court had no business hearing Montgomery's case.
Three years ago, the justices struck down automatic life sentences with no chance of release for teenage killers. The main question for the court Tuesday was whether that decision in Miller v. Alabama should be extended retroactively to Montgomery and hundreds of other inmates whose convictions are final.
In the 5-4 decision in 2012, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority that judges weighing prison terms for young offenders must take into account "the mitigating qualities of youth," among them immaturity and the failure to understand fully the consequences of their actions.
S. Kyle Duncan, arguing on behalf of the state of Louisiana, said the Alabama decision doesn't qualify as an extraordinary ruling that should be extended to older cases because it left open the imposition of life without parole for people under 18 if courts take account of a defendant's circumstances.
"In Miller this court was invited to categorically bar the penalty of life without parole for juveniles who commit murder, but it decided not to do so," Duncan said.
Kagan disagreed about the significance of the Alabama decision, noting that courts now have to consider less severe punishments. "What the court has done is to say, there have to be other options," she said.
If the court says it should not have taken up Montgomery's case, others are waiting, including one from Virginia. The inmate in that case, Shermaine Ali Johnson, was 16 years old when he raped and killed a woman in 1994.