May 30, 2011 – Amendment VIII of the United States Constitution – Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The text of the Eighth Amendment, concise and plain, masks the fluidity that the Supreme Court has assigned to its words. The more intensely scrutinized portion, by far, is the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. There are two applications that have been particularly significant in recent years, the constitutionality of the death penalty and the application of the amendment to “enhanced interrogations.”

It would be fatuous for opponents of the death penalty to claim that the Framers understood the death penalty to be unconstitutional. The Constitution’s text belies such an assertion, because the Fifth Amendment three times makes it plain that the death penalty is a proper punishment for crime: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital…crime, unless on…indictment of a Grand Jury…; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Moreover, the common law at various times recognized capital punishment for a couple of hundred criminal offense.  Given the additional availability of whipping, branding, ear cropping, and other such forms of corporal chastisement, the Framers’ understanding of “cruel and unusual punishment” was restricted to those torturous punishments that stood out for their infliction of extended periods of particularly gruesome pain for no end other than the infliction of that pain, and that were applied with such extreme rarity as to undercut any realistic claim that they served a moral purpose such as retributive justice or moral reformation. An example would be the rarely-used, but then still available, punishment of drawing and quartering applied in exceptional treason cases in Britain.

To further the cause of modern death penalty abolitionists, the Court was obliged to impress upon the Eighth Amendment an interpretive mechanism that could supersede the specific textual recognition of the death penalty’s legitimacy. That mechanism is the judicial matrix of “evolving standards of societal decency” that would “guide” the Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.  Using “cruel” in a qualitative sense and “unusual” in a quantitative sense, this approach allows for a judicial finding that punishments that fall into comparative disuse, either by change in legislation or even through failure of prosecutors to seek the death penalty or of juries to impose it on a regular basis for certain crimes, become violations of the Eighth Amendment. Particularly galling to the opponents of this approach, such as Justice Scalia, is that the procedural hurdles created for the imposition of the penalty in past cases themselves are much to blame for the (comparatively) infrequent use of the death penalty.

Although the Court has not finally found the death penalty to violate the Eighth Amendment, the end is clear. Death penalty jurisprudence has been one instance of ad hoc judicial law-making after another.  Capital punishment, the Court once opined, is applied too haphazardly.  When states responded with mandatory death penalty laws and other restrictions on jury discretion, the Court found those wanting in that juries must be able to exercise discretion to impose the death penalty or not.  However, further decisions then determined that the jury discretion must be subject to specific guidance. Moreover, the judge must have the power to override a jury’s imposition of the death sentence, but not the other way around.  Juries must be able to hear any and all mitigating personal evidence for the defendant, dredging up every aspect of the defendant’s life that would place some blame for the crime, somehow, on some person other than the defendant.  On the other hand, aggravating evidence, such as about the victim whose life was snuffed out, had to be very carefully limited.

As to the “evolving standards of decency” test, the Court once declared that the Eighth Amendment must not cut off the normal democratic process. Yet, more recently, the Court, led by Justice Kennedy, has taken great pains to do just that, overturning laws that provided the death penalty for older juveniles who commit particularly heinous murders and for non-homicide crimes. Kennedy, in particular, while dutifully declaring the contrary, seems intent on imposing through the Constitution his own vision of the moral and “decent” society. The Court earlier pronounced that the “Eighth Amendment is not a ratchet, whereby a temporary consensus on leniency for a particular crime fixes a permanent constitutional maximum, disabling States from giving effect to altered beliefs and responding to changed social conditions.” Once more assuming the role of philosopher-king, Kennedy in the last capital punishment case, Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), rejected the idea that the death penalty could be expanded (though, in fact, the law at issue there, capital punishment for aggravated child rape, did not “expand” the death penalty).  After all, that would not fit Kennedy’s Hegelian march of “evolving standards of decency…on the way to full progress and mature judgment.” So, there is only one direction of evolution, regardless of what the people might enact, one that leads, Kennedy all but assured the abolitionists, to the eventual demise of the death penalty.

In Roper v. Illinois (2005), the juvenile death penalty case, Justice Kennedy resorted to comparing the United States unfavorably with European systems, as well as with other, even less savory, exemplars of justice, and, as he has done in some other areas of constitutional law, invoked the decisions of his fellow Platonic guardians on tribunals overseas.  Due to the rebukes launched by Justice Scalia in his dissents, the Court is less inclined these days to feature that line of internationalist argumentation as a basis for guidance of the American Constitution in a direction Justice Kennedy finds to be more civilized.

International standards have also been used in attempts to limit the use of techniques to interrogate suspected terrorists. Leaving aside specific anti-torture statutes or treaty obligations, note that the Eighth Amendment itself only prohibits cruel and unusual “punishment.” Not only is this limited to torture and other extreme actions; the Court in past cases repeatedly has held that it applies only to punishment, not to other actions by the government. Hence the challenged behavior must be directed at “punishing” the individual. This distinction between punishment and other objectives in the use of force against prisoners is one long established in many Western systems of law, and one that the Framers clearly understood.

If a prisoner brings a claim that excessive force was used in violation of the Eighth Amendment, he must show that this was for the purpose of punishment. If the force or condition of confinement was for another purpose, the Eighth Amendment is not implicated.  Thus, the state of mind of the persons conducting the interrogation becomes important. Did they do so for purpose of discipline, security, or information gathering, or did they do so simply to punish? That state of mind can be demonstrated circumstantially by a number of factors, such as the asserted purpose of the treatment and the degree of force used in relation to the many varied circumstances that triggered the interrogation, an evaluation that implicates the proportionality principle that lurks in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Only if the actions go beyond the asserted disciplinary or investigatory needs, might the treatment amount to cruel and unusual punishment. As the Court has said in several cases, the prisoner must show that the government agent acted “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.”

The prisoner might assert claims that the government violated Fourth Amendment standards against unreasonable searches and seizures, or, more likely, nebulous Fifth Amendment due process standards against treatment that “shocks the conscience.” Even if a foreign terror suspect kept overseas is entitled to those constitutional protections as a matter of right (an issue not resolved even by the Court’s Boumediene decision that, for the first time, granted such detainees access to the writ of habeas corpus), they might not help him.  The “shocks-the-conscience” test is particularly difficult to confine, and the Court employs a utilitarian approach. The Justices have made it clear that it is not just the severity of the method, but the degree of necessity for the challenged action, that will determine whether the consciences of at least five of them are shocked.  In any event, whether or not the justices are suitably shocked under the Fifth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment does not apply to careful methods used demonstrably for the purpose of extracting information.

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/.

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