COLUMN > From the Spindle
BY VALERIE McOMIE
Standards for Evaluating the Constitutionality of “De Facto” Life Sentences Imposed on Juvenile Offenders
In State v. Anderson, No. 97890-5, 2022 WL 4100782, __ Wn.2d __ (Wash. Sept. 8, 2022), the Washington Supreme Court considered whether the prohibition of “cruel punishment” in Wash. Const. art. I, § 14, prohibits courts from imposing “de facto” life sentences on defendants who committed their crimes as juveniles. In 1995, when Tonelli Anderson was 17 years old, he and a friend killed two people and gravely injured a third during a drug deal. Following a bench trial in 2000, Anderson was found guilty and sentenced to just over 61 years in prison.
Several significant decisions clarifying federal and state constitutional protections for juvenile offenders were issued after Anderson’s conviction. In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences in juvenile cases violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Under Miller, juvenile offenders must receive an individualized hearing before being sentenced to LWOP, to determine whether the crime reflected “mitigating qualities of youth.” Id. at 476 (citation omitted). The Court emphasized that it is the “rare juvenile offender whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption” to warrant a LWOP sentence. Id. at 479-80.
Following Miller, the Washington Supreme Court held that the prohibition of “cruel punishment” in Wash. Const. art. I, § 14, affords greater protection than the Eighth Amendment, and categorically prohibits LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders. State v. Bassett, 192 Wn.2d 67, 73 (2018). And in State v. Haag, 198 Wn.2d 309 (2021), the Washington Supreme Court held that the 46-year sentence imposed on Timothy Haag, 17 when he committed his crime, constituted a “de facto” LWOP sentence because it denied him the opportunity to live a meaningful life outside of prison. Id. at 327-29. The court concluded that Haag’s sentence violated his Eighth Amendment rights because the individualized hearing to which he was entitled under Miller emphasized retribution and failed to consider immaturity, impetuosity, or other mitigating qualities of youth. Id. at 325. It further held the sentence violated art. I, § 14, of the Washington State Constitution, which bars all life sentences for juveniles. Id. at 329-30.
Anderson moved for resentencing in light of this developing jurisprudence. He submitted articles describing juvenile brain development and letters detailing his personal rehabilitation in prison. He also testified, apologizing for his crime and explaining that he became entangled in life on the streets after fleeing a crime-ridden home.
While acknowledging Anderson’s progress and expressions of remorse, the trial court noted that it was required to consider the role Anderson’s youth played in the commission of his crime. It stated that Anderson’s crime reflected careful planning, efforts to hinder law enforcement, and full awareness of the consequences. The court concluded that Anderson failed to prove his crime reflected mitigating factors of youth and declined to alter his 61-year sentence.
The Washington Supreme Court accepted direct review, and in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Stephens, affirmed. It held the trial court properly considered the Miller factors. Anderson, 2022 WL 4100782, at *6. To Anderson’s argument that the sentence conflicted with Haag, which he claimed imposed a categorical bar prohibiting de facto LWOP sentences in juvenile cases, the court clarified its prior opinion: “Haag’s state constitutional holding recognized a categorical bar prohibiting de facto LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders who have shown that their crimes reflect youthful immaturity, impetuosity, or failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” Id. (emphasis added).
In separate dissents, Justice González (joined by Justices Gordon McCloud and Montoya-Lewis) and Justice Yu (joined by Justice Montoya-Lewis) expressed their view that the majority opinion is unjust and irreconcilable with prior decisions. See id. at *12-17, *17-22.
Legal Standard for Determining When Civil Plaintiffs are Entitled to Relief Under the Doctrine of Equitable Tolling
In Fowler v. Guerin, 200 Wash.2d 110 (2022), the Washington Supreme Court addressed the legal standard that a plaintiff in a civil action must meet to obtain relief from a limitations period under the doctrine of equitable tolling. In 2005, a class of Washington teachers sued the Washington State Department of Retirement Systems (DRS), challenging DRS’s calculation of interest payments on teachers’ retirement contributions. That lawsuit resulted in a partial settlement but left many claims unresolved. Fowler and Maurer subsequently became class plaintiffs in a 2009 class action, representing approximately 25,000 remaining members (the Teachers). In 2013, the Thurston County Superior Court remanded the case to DRS for new rulemaking. DRS Director Tracy Guerin thereafter reaffirmed DRS’s original interest calculation method.
In 2015, the Teachers filed a separate federal action against Director Guerin under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming the interest calculation method constituted a takings in violation of the Teachers’ Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. Guerin asserted a statute of limitations defense, and the Teachers sought relief under the doctrine of equitable tolling. The district court noted uncertainty in Washington law regarding the legal standard for equitable tolling in civil cases and certified a question of state law to the Washington Supreme Court. Fowler v. Guerin, No. C15-5367, 2021 WL 4972737, at *1 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 5, 2021).
In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Stephens, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Washington’s four-part conjunctive test for determining whether a civil plaintiff has established entitlement to equitable tolling:
(1) the plaintiff has exercised diligence, (2) the defendant’s bad faith, false assurances, or deception interfered with the plaintiff’s timely filing, (3) tolling is consistent with (a) the purpose of the underlying statute and (b) the purpose of the statute of limitations, and (4) justice requires tolling the statute of limitations.
200 Wn.2d at 125. In holding that all four elements must be present, the court emphasized that equitable tolling is an “extraordinary form of relief” that must be “used sparingly.” Id. at 118, 119 (citation omitted).
Justice Yu concurred in the decision, but wrote separately to highlight the “flexible, fact-specific” nature of the inquiry. The concurrence emphasized that flexibility “is necessary to preserve the underlying purpose of equitable tolling,” which is “not to punish misconduct but to relieve [parties] under special circumstances from the harshness of strict legal rules.” Id. at 127 (citation omitted).
Scope of Authority Afforded to the State to Manage Forested Lands Granted to the State by the Federal Government and Washington Counties, and Whether its Management Strategy Comports with its Constitutional Obligation to Manage Public Lands For “All the People.”
In Conservation Northwest v. Commissioner of Public Lands, 199 Wn.2d 813 (2022), Washington individuals and nonprofit organizations (collectively Conservation NW) sued the Commissioner of Public Lands, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and the Board of Natural Resources (collectively DNR), claiming DNR’s strategy for managing approximately three million acres of forested lands in Washington granted to the state by the federal government and various Washington counties violated the Washington State Constitution. Conservation NW claimed that DNR improperly prioritized revenue through the harvesting of timber at the expense of conservation efforts, breaching its obligation to use the land for the benefit of “all the people,” as required by Wash. Const. art. XVI, § 1.
DNR responded that under the Omnibus Enabling Act of 1889, ch. 180, 25 Stat. 676 (the Act) and RCW 79.22.040, the federal government and Washington counties created land trusts, which obligated the state to use the lands for the benefit of identified trust beneficiaries, including common schools and other enumerated state institutions as well as granting counties. DNR maintained that its emphasis on revenue satisfied its duties under the trusts and did not violate other laws. The superior court dismissed the action, holding that DNR’s actions were consistent with its obligations as a trustee.
Conservation NW appealed. On direct review, the Washington Supreme Court framed the two key legal questions before it: (1) Did the Act create a trust?11 It was undisputed that the county land grants created trust obligations. See Conservation Northwest v. Commissioner, 199 Wn.2d at 822 n.3. (2) Did DNR’s management of the granted lands comport with DNR’s legal obligations? A unanimous opinion of the court written by Justice Whitener answered “yes” to both questions.
In answering the first question, the court emphasized that in ascertaining the presence of a trust, the relevant inquiry is whether the grantor grants the land with the “intention to impose enforceable duties,” and the grantee accepts the land “with the express or implied understanding” that enforceable duties follow the land grant. Id. at 824.Congress passed the Act in 1889 to admit several western states, including Washington, into the Union. The Act that effectuated the land grant directed that the land should be “held, appropriated, and disposed of exclusively for the purposes” of supporting common schools and other state institutions. Id. at 825 (citation omitted). The court concluded that the Act evidenced the federal government’s intent to create a trust, pursuant to which the lands “were not [the state’s] absolute property but, instead, were to be held and used exclusively for the enumerated purpose.” Id. at 826 (citation omitted). The court concluded that the Act created a trust, requiring the state to manage the lands for the benefit of trust beneficiaries.
In response to the second question, the court held that Conservation NW failed to prove that DNR’s land management was unconstitutional or arbitrary and capricious. It noted that within the bounds of the trust, the state was afforded discretion to determine the precise manner of managing the lands, and the state delegated its management obligations to DNR. The obligations imposed upon DNR by the Act and art. XVI, § 1, must be read in harmony, and the Washington Constitution’s mandate that granted lands be used for the benefit of “all the people” should be read with awareness that it “was drafted and later approved as being in conformity with the provisions of the Enabling Act.” Id. at 832. The court noted that “all the people” benefit from DNR’s generating of revenue because they benefit from “financially viable public systems.” Id. at 834. And it agreed with DNR that its policy of generating revenue was not done “at the expense of forest health.” Id. at 834. With these considerations in mind, the court concluded that DNR had acted within its discretion in managing the trust lands:
Using granted state and forest board lands as productive trust property aligns with DNR’s general trustee duties and provides a benefit to the general population by boosting local economies as well as maintaining stronger and better-funded public systems of education and governance. We recognize the important compelling interests in conservation and environmental health … but these policy issues must be left to the legislature. DNR’s discretionary land management strategies are neither unconstitutional nor arbitrary and capricious.
Id. at 835.
1. It was undisputed that the county land grants created trust obligations. See Conservation Northwest v. Commissioner, 199 Wn.2d at 822 n.3.