Supreme Court Decision Cites Association’s Brief

In a ruling last month on the constitutionality of life imprisonment for juveniles, the U.S. Supreme Court cited an amicus brief filed by NASW and others arguing that “condemning an immature, vulnerable, and not-yet-fully-formed adolescent to die in prison is a constitutionally disproportionate punishment.”

The court ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole for crimes that don’t involve homicide. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, said the categorical practice of sentencing offenders under age 18 to life without parole violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment safeguarded in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

“Due to the limited number of cases the court accepts each term, the cases often generate immense national scrutiny and a large number of amicus briefs,” said NASW Associate Counsel Sherri Morgan. “For the court to specifically reference an amicus brief indicates that they have found the ... information valuable for at least one point in its decision-making process.”

Kennedy also noted that such a harsh punishment for juvenile offenders has been rejected “the world over.”

Morgan said NASW is pleased that the court continues to issue decisions recognizing the developmental differences between adult and juvenile offenders that necessitate different treatment within the criminal justice system.

“These differences are documented in the scientific literature on adolescent brain development and NASW’s policy statements,” Morgan added.

The case, Graham v. Florida, stems from a Florida court’s decision to sentence Terrance Graham, a 17-year-old male, to life in prison without parole for committing robberies while on probation for a previous robbery.

Federal law, 37 states and the District of Columbia permit sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes not involving homicide.

“A state is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a non-homicide crime,” Kennedy clarified in his ruling. “What the state must do, however, is give defendants ... some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

Just five years ago, Kennedy, again writing for the majority, invalidated the death penalty for juveniles, concluding that their developmental characteristics mitigated their culpability for heinous crimes.

Morgan noted that the decision supports the social work value of respect for “the inherent dignity and worth of the person” and encourages social workers to continue advocating and developing services for incarcerated youthful offenders and to focus on re-entry services for offenders who are released.

NASW joined the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and Mental Health America in filing the brief.

The Supreme Court also sided with NASW in its recent decision in the matter of Lewis et al. v. City of Chicago, a case involving Chicago’s use of a hiring exam for firefighters that illegally discriminated against minority applicants.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, requires claims of discrimination to be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 300 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred. The city had argued that the unlawful practice occurred the moment it announced the test results; the plaintiffs filed their initial claims of discrimination well beyond 300 days of the city’s announcement.

In a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court said an illegal employment practice occurs each time an employer executes an employment practice that causes a disparate impact, and that the defining element of a disparate impact claim that triggers the 300-day countdown is the practice’s application, not its adoption.

“This is a notable victory for civil rights by creating a pathway to eliminate discrimination based on the use of tests that are not suitably tailored to the job function,” said Morgan, noting that the unanimous opinion comes at a time when many of the court’s decisions are marked by sharp divisions.

She continued: “This creates greater certainty as to the court’s intent, serving to put employers on notice as to prohibited conduct in recruiting and hiring. Reducing disparities and barriers to employment for minorities and other disadvantaged populations is an important focus of social work advocacy.”

NASW attorneys were decidedly mixed in their reaction to a recent New York Court of Appeals decision in the matter of Debra H. v. Janice R.

NASW, the New York State and New York City chapters had filed a motion and amicus brief in support of plaintiff Debra’s attempt to gain custody and visitation privileges of the biological child of her ex-partner Janice, to which the Court of Appeals said Debra should be entitled. However, judges limited their decision solely to the question of Debra’s standing as a parent based on a civil union she had entered into with Janice prior to the birth of the child.

Counsel for NASW had argued that Debra should be treated as a de facto parent because she provided critical emotional, physical and financial support to the child. The Court asserted that such a step is the purview of the State Assembly.

“NASW is pleased with the decision in Debra H. v. Janice R,“ Morgan said. “It would have been valuable if the court’s decision was based more broadly on a recognition of the de facto parent doctrine; however, this decision represents a positive step for New York families.”

NASW members can access the NASW Legal Defense Fund’s Amicus Brief Database for more information.