(Posted June 12, 2017) This morning the Supreme Court of the United States reverses the Fourth Circuit in Virginia v. LeBlanc, involving a life sentence imposed on an offender who was a juvenile at the time of the offense. A US district judge and the Fourth Circuit had ruled against the Commonwealth on habeas review, but today the Supreme Court rules that those decisions didn’t afford sufficient deference to the state courts’ conclusion on the constitutionality of Virginia’s sentencing scheme.

This is the case in which the state courts held that the availability of geriatric release means that even life sentences without parole are not truly life sentences, in that each inmate has at least a hope of getting released someday. A district judge found that explanation wanting, going to the extent of writing that reasonable jurists could not disagree that the Virginia courts’ rulings – including a decision from the SCV – were plainly unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, but today SCOTUS reverses in a unanimous per curiam order.

Today’s short opinion is assuredly not the last word on the subject. The justices cite the statutory deference spelled out in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Because there are two plausible sides to this issue, the justices reverse the grant of habeas relief. But the Court takes pains to note that it can still address the issue on direct appeal, where no such deference is mandatory. I suspect that at least one direct appeal is wending its way through the system, so while the game is over for LeBlanc, the issue isn’t fully settled.