Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Having covered the truly significant decision in yesterday's post, let's get to the flashier but not really as important decision in Graham v. Florida. The Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional "cruel and unusual" punishment to sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole ("LWOP") for a crime not involving a homicide.

I don't really have strong feelings about the decision -- although I think I might have joined the second part of the Chief Justice's opinion, which concluded that LWOP was an unconstitutionally disproportionate sentence for the crime involved in the particular case before the Court, without deciding whether such a sentence could never be appropriate for any juvenile convicted of a nonhomicide offense, no matter how horrible and depraved that offense might be.

What interests me about the decision, though, is this: Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, expressed the view that there is no proportionality requirement whatever in the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. That clause, they believe, prohibits torturous methods of punishment, but has no application to the question of whether a punishment that might be permissible for some crime is too severe for some other crime. The Court majority, on the other hand, stated that "[t]he concept of proportionality is central to the Eighth Amendment." How can five Justices think something is "central" to the Amendment and two Justices think it not involved at all?

As is often the case, part of the answer comes down to textualism versus other interpretive methods. Justices Thomas and Scalia, in my view, put too much weight on textualism in this question. The Eighth Amendment's single sentence provides, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." It is true that the text does not expressly impose a proportionality requirement on prison sentences. But it does prohibit excessive fines. Can anyone possibly explain why the Constitution would provide that society cannot impose a fine on a criminal that is disproportionate to the criminal's offense, but could impose a disproportionate prison sentence?

I'm sorry, but it just doesn't make sense. One can understand how the Framers might have neglected to specify that prison sentences shall not be excessive, because, as Justice Thomas himself notes, prison sentences were not a common punishment in the eighteenth century -- criminals were punished by fines, whipping, or shaming, or, if that was not sufficient, then by death. But it is hard to understand how anyone could want to prohibit excessive fines but not excessive prison sentences, and the appropriate solution is to subsume the excessiveness requirement in the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the original 13 states - I have forgotten which one - at one time had a provision similar to "no cruel and unusual punishments" in their state constitution, but with the interesting and perhaps better wording like, "punishments shall be no more cruel nor unusual than the crime."

Such an application of this principle might temper extremes in punishments relative to crimes, such as life imprisonments for a trivially petty "third strike" offense resulting in a life sentence.