Volume 29, Issue 2, Fall 2015
Proportionality and the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Clause
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.” Although treasured as a statement of fundamental rights, the Amendment’s terms and relations are not uniformly read. This is amply illustrated by the various positions on the Amendment’s correct meaning expressed in the various majority, plurality, and dissenting opinions issued by the United States Supreme Court (U.S.S.C.). This is not to suggest that a more or less uniform interpretation fails to obtain with all of the phrases of the Amendment. The clauses covering excessive bail and excessive fines do enjoy some level of agreed meaning among the Court’s members. This, however, does not pertain to the Cruel and Unusual Clause. An apparent majority of the Court holds that the extent of application of an otherwise acceptable punitive sanction may nevertheless constitute cruel and unusual punishment. A minority of the Court denies this. This essay will critically examine the two major positions concerning the questioned Clause. Additionally, it will offer an argument which especially favors one of the noted positions.