'Elite' Supreme Court sides with science and juveniles
Justice Alito chided the Supreme Court majority for its 'elite vision' in striking down mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. But the court based its decision on science – the science of adolescent brain development. Science is a kind of elitism that we need more of.
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If the science of brain development made it unconstitutional to put juveniles to death – or to put them away for life, for crimes short of murder – than why wouldn’t it also invalidate life sentences for murder itself? The court’s dissenting minority didn’t say. Rather, it ruled that it could not interfere with a law simply because the measure flouts scientific knowledge.Skip to next paragraph
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“Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But that is not our decision to make.”
That sentence strikes me as cruel, in and of itself. Science might have discovered new facts about the nature – and the limits – of adolescent judgment and self-control, with enormous implications for calculating criminal responsibility. But if state lawmakers want to ignore these discoveries, Mr. Roberts says, the court won’t get in the way.
And nothing in Monday’s decision will prevent a judge from sending a juvenile to prison for life. The ruling simply bars mandatory life-sentence laws, which prevent courts from taking into account all the extenuating evidence – including, of course, evidence from science.
That brings us back to Justice Alito, who railed about the “elite vision” of the court’s majority. He’s right, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Science is itself a kind of elitism, insofar as it privileges rigorous experimentation and testing over cant, guesswork, and propaganda. And we need more of it, not less.
Over a century ago, in 1908, Louis Brandeis defended a state minimum-hours law for working women by presenting the Supreme Court with a 113-page brief of evidence about the dangerous effect of long working hours on female health. Later, when he joined the court himself, Brandeis became its leading tribune for applying our best scientific knowledge to our toughest legal dilemmas.
“A lawyer who has not studied economics and sociology is very apt to become a public enemy,” Brandeis wrote in 1935, in his now-classic text The Living Law.
Today, we might add psychology to Brandeis’s list of required disciplines. But don’t tell that to Justices Alito and Roberts. Remember, they didn’t voice objections to the scientific evidence; they simply dismissed it. Thank heavens that the court’s slender majority thought better of what we know, and of why it matters. Somewhere, Louis Brandeis is smiling.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).