from the United States District Court for the Western
District of Tennessee at Memphis. No. 2:09-cv-02297-Sheryl H.
Lipman, District Judge.
BRIEF: Michael J. Stengel, MICHAEL J. STENGEL, P.C., Memphis,
Tennessee, for Appellant. Michael M. Stahl, OFFICE OF THE
TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for
Before: COLE, Chief Judge; SILER and MURPHY, Circuit Judges.
MURPHY, Circuit Judge.
Tennessee jury convicted Howard Atkins of murdering his
stepfather in 2000 when he was just 16 years old. A state
court imposed a life sentence that (all now agree) renders
Atkins eligible for release after at least 51 years'
imprisonment. See Brown v. Jordan, 563 S.W.3d 196,
197, 200-02 (Tenn. 2018) (discussing Tenn. Code Ann. §
40-35- 501(h)-(i)). His conviction and sentence were affirmed
on direct appeal. State v. Atkins, No.
W2001-02427-CCA-R3-CD, 2003 WL 21339263 (Tenn. Crim. App. May
later, the Supreme Court held that a sentence of
"mandatory life without parole for those under the age
of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth
Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual
punishments.'" Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S.
460, 465 (2012). (The Court concluded that Miller
applies retroactively in Montgomery v. Louisiana,
136 S.Ct. 718 (2016).) Atkins sought to benefit from
Miller in state post-conviction proceedings. He
argued that the life sentence he received as a 16-year-old
also qualified as a "cruel and unusual" punishment
under the Eighth Amendment. A state appellate court rejected
his claim. It distinguished Miller because, unlike
the juveniles in that case, Atkins could be released after 51
years' imprisonment and so was "not serving a
sentence of life without the possibility of parole."
Atkins then turned to the federal courts with his Eighth
Amendment claim. The district court denied relief too, but
issued a certificate of appealability for us to consider
whether the state court reasonably distinguished
Miller under the governing standards for federal
habeas relief in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).
2254(d)(1) prohibits a federal habeas court from upending a
state criminal judgment unless a state court's rejection
of a constitutional claim was "contrary to, or involved
an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal
law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United
States." The Supreme Court has repeatedly reminded the
circuit courts that this statutory test "is difficult to
meet." White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 419
(2014) (citation omitted). The statute's "clearly
established" language allows a court to grant relief
based only on "the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of
[the Supreme] Court's decisions." Id.
must start by identifying Miller's holding. At
first glance, that task looks easy because Miller
expressly (and repeatedly) stated its holding. The Court said
at the outset: "[w]e therefore hold that mandatory life
without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of
their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition
on 'cruel and unusual punishments.'"
Miller, 567 U.S. at 465. It later repeated the same
message: "[w]e therefore hold that the Eighth Amendment
forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison
without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders."
Id. at 479. For good measure, the Court also
described what it was not holding. Since the case involved
state laws that made life without parole the mandatory
sentence for the juvenile defendants, id. at 466-69,
the Court did not need to decide whether the Eighth Amendment
imposed a "categorical bar on life without parole for
juveniles," id. at 479. It held only that the
Eighth Amendment prohibits states from requiring an automatic
life-without-parole sentence without giving sentencing courts
discretion to consider a juvenile's youth when deciding
whether to impose "that harshest prison sentence."
Id. In other words, Miller did "not
categorically bar a penalty for a class of offenders";
it "mandate[d] only that a sentencer follow a certain
process-considering an offender's youth and attendant
characteristics-before imposing" a life-without-parole
sentence. Id. at 483.
case complicates things. Despite Miller's
disclaimers about its reach, the Court in Montgomery
described the decision more broadly when concluding that
"Miller announced a substantive rule that is
retroactive in cases on collateral review." 136 S.Ct. at
732. According to Montgomery, Miller in
fact "rendered life without parole an unconstitutional
penalty for 'a class of defendants because of their
status'-that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect
the transient immaturity of youth." Id. at 734
(citation omitted). "Miller did bar life
without parole," Montgomery added, "for
all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes
reflect permanent incorrigibility." Id.
Montgomery thus found that "Miller drew a
line between children whose crimes reflect transient
immaturity and those rare children whose crimes reflect
irreparable corruption." Id. Only the latter
may receive a life-without-parole sentence. Id. The
Court will soon decide whether Montgomery expanded
Miller's holding (and whether any such expansion
can be applied retroactively). See Mathena v. Malvo,
139 S.Ct. 1317 (2019) (granting certiorari).
purposes, though, Miller's precise scope does
not matter. Atkins cannot obtain relief under §
2254(d)(1) even if Miller more broadly prohibited
life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who are not
permanently incorrigible. Montgomery, 136 S.Ct. at
734. Either way, the state court's holding-that a chance
for release after 51 years removes Atkins's sentence from
Miller's orbit-was neither "contrary
to" nor an "unreasonable application" of
Miller. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).
with the "contrary to" language. A state
court's decision is "contrary to" a Supreme
Court holding only if "the state court applies a rule
different from the governing law set forth in" the
Supreme Court's decision, "or if it decides a case
differently than [the] Court has done on a set of materially
indistinguishable facts." Bell v. Cone, 535
U.S. 685, 694 (2002) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529
U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)). The state court did nothing of the
sort here. Whether read broadly or narrowly, Miller
creates a legal rule about life-without-parole sentences.
And, whether one looks at Atkins's sentence formally or
functionally, he did not receive a
life-without-parole sentence. He will be eligible for release
after at least 51 years' imprisonment. See
Brown, 563 S.W.3d at 197. Miller's holding
simply does not cover a lengthy term of imprisonment that
falls short of life without parole. See Starks v.
Easterling, 659 Fed.Appx. 277, 280-81 (6th Cir. 2016);
cf. Bunch v. Smith, 685 F.3d 546, 551 (6th Cir.
2012). Similarly, the facts of Atkins's case (the
possibility of release after 51 years' imprisonment)
materially distinguish it from the facts of Miller
(no possibility of release). Cf. Lockyer v. Andrade,
538 U.S. 63, 74 & n.1 (2003).
the state court's decision an "unreasonable
application" of Miller. A state decision cannot
have unreasonably applied a Supreme Court precedent
if a habeas petitioner needs a federal court "to
extend that precedent" to obtain relief.
Woodall, 572 U.S. at 426. Atkins needs that type of
extension here. He asks us to expand Miller's
holding to cover life sentences that include a lengthy prison
term before any potential release. "'Perhaps the
logical next step from'" Miller would be to
hold that a life sentence without any chance of parole for 51
years "does not satisfy the Eighth Amendment, but
'perhaps not.'" Virginia v. LeBlanc,
137 S.Ct. 1726, 1729 (2017) (per curiam) (citation omitted).
After all, Miller reasoned that life-without-parole
sentences are unique, noting that they "share some
characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no
other sentences." Miller, 567 U.S. at 474
(quoting Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 69 (2010)).
The portion of Miller tailored to
life-without-parole sentences shows that there is at least a
"reasonable argument" that it applies only to those
types of sentences. Demirdjian v. Gipson, 832 F.3d
1060, 1076 (9th Cir. 2016). That reasonable argument
forecloses any claim that the state court acted unreasonably
under § 2254(d)(1).
told, Miller emphasized the "without
parole" component of its holding five times.
See 567 U.S. at 465, 470, 477, 479, 489. A
"limitation thus emphasized is one the state courts may
honor, with relatively little fear of being found
'objectively unreasonable' for doing so."
Mendoza v. Berghuis, 544 F.3d 650, 655 (6th Cir.
resists this conclusion. According to him, Miller
held that all juvenile sentences "must provide
'some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on
demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.'"
Miller, 567 U.S. at 479 (quoting Graham,
560 U.S. at 75). This reading would dramatically expand
Miller's scope and create significant
uncertainty to boot. How many years may a sentence extend
before juveniles must receive their first parole hearing?
Atkins does not say. If Miller intended the broad
reach that he proposes, we would have expected clear language
to that effect along with guidance for lower courts on how to
implement the Court's holding. But the language from
Miller that Atkins highlights can be found only in a
parenthetical immediately following a "Cf."
citation to Graham (signaling a comparison).
Id. Just as Congress does not "alter the
fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or
ancillary provisions," Whitman v. Am. Trucking