Furman v. Georgia/Concurrence Marshall II

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Furman v. Georgia
Concurring Opinion, Section II by Thurgood Marshall
Introduction I II III IV V VI VII Appendices

This Court did not squarely face the task of interpreting the cruel and unusual punishments language for the first time until Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1879), although the language received a cursory examination in several prior cases. See, e. g., Pervear v. Commonwealth, 5 Wall. 475 (1867). In Wilkerson, the Court unanimously upheld a sentence of public execution by shooting imposed pursuant to a conviction for premeditated murder. In his opinion for the Court, Mr. Justice Clifford wrote:

"Difficulty would attend the effort to define with exactness the extent of the constitutional provision which provides that cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted; but it is safe to affirm that punishments of torture, . . . and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by that amendment to the Constitution." 99 U.S., at 135 -136.

Thus, the Court found that unnecessary cruelty was no more permissible than torture. To determine whether the punishment under attack was unnecessarily cruel, the Court examined the history of the Utah Territory and the then-current writings on capital punishment, and compared this Nation's practices with those of other countries. It is apparent that the Court felt it could not dispose of the question simply by referring to traditional practices; instead, it felt bound to examine developing thought.

Eleven years passed before the Court again faced a challenge to a specific punishment under the Eighth [408 U.S. 238, 323] Amendment. In the case of In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1890), Chief Justice Fuller wrote an opinion for a unanimous Court upholding electrocution as a permissible mode of punishment. While the Court ostensibly held that the Eighth Amendment did not apply to the States, it is very apparent that the nature of the punishment involved was examined under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that the punishment was not objectionable. Today, Kemmler stands primarily for the proposition that a punishment is not necessarily unconstitutional simply because it is unusual, so long as the legislature has a humane purpose in selecting it.[1]

Two years later in O'Neil v. Vermont, 144 U.S. 323 (1892), the Court reaffirmed that the Eighth Amendment was not applicable to the States. O'Neil was found guilty on 307 counts of selling liquor in violation of Vermont law. A fine of $6,140 ($20 for each offense) and the costs of prosecution ($497.96) were imposed. O'Neil was committed to prison until the fine and the costs were paid; and the court provided that if they were not paid before a specified date, O'Neil was to be confined in the house of corrections for 19,914 days (approximately 54 years) at hard labor. Three Justices - Field, Harlan, and Brewer - dissented. They maintained not only that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause was applicable to the States, but that in O'Neil's case it had been violated. Mr. Justice Field wrote:

"That designation [cruel and unusual], it is true, is usually applied to punishments which inflict torture, such as the rack, the thumbscrew, the iron boot, the stretching of limbs and the like, which [408 U.S. 238, 324] are attended with acute pain and suffering. . . . The inhibition is directed, not only against punishments of the character mentioned, but against all punishments which by their excessive length or severity are greatly disproportioned to the offences charged. The whole inhibition is against that which is excessive . . . ." Id., at 339-340.

In Howard v. Fleming, 191 U.S. 126 (1903), the Court, in essence, followed the approach advocated by the dissenters in O'Neil. In rejecting the claim that 10-year sentences for conspiracy to defraud were cruel and unusual, the Court (per Mr. Justice Brewer) considered the nature of the crime, the purpose of the law, and the length of the sentence imposed.

The Court used the same approach seven years later in the landmark case of Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910). Weems, an officer of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the United States Government of the Philippine Islands, was convicted of falsifying a "public and official document." He was sentenced to 15 years' incarceration at hard labor with chains on his ankles, to an unusual loss of his civil rights, and to perpetual surveillance. Called upon to determine whether this was a cruel and unusual punishment, the Court found that it was.[2] The Court emphasized that the Constitution was not an "ephemeral" enactment, or one "designed to meet passing occasions."[3] Recognizing that "[t]ime works changes, [and] brings into existence new conditions and purposes,"[4] the Court commented that "[i]n the application of a constitution [408 U.S. 238, 325] . . . our contemplation cannot be only of what has been but of what may be."[5]

In striking down the penalty imposed on Weems, the Court examined the punishment in relation to the offense, compared the punishment to those inflicted for other crimes and to those imposed in other jurisdictions, and concluded that the punishment was excessive.[6] Justices White and Holmes dissented and argued that the cruel and unusual prohibition was meant to prohibit only those things that were objectionable at the time the Constitution was adopted.[7]

Weems is a landmark case because it represents the first time that the Court invalidated a penalty prescribed by a legislature for a particular offense. The Court made it plain beyond any reasonable doubt that excessive punishments were as objectionable as those that were inherently cruel. Thus, it is apparent that the dissenters' position in O'Neil had become the opinion of the Court in Weems.

Weems was followed by two cases that added little to our knowledge of the scope of the cruel and unusual language, Badders v. United States, 240 U.S. 391 (1916), and United States ex rel. Milwaukee Social Democratic Publishing Co. v. Burleson, 255 U.S. 407 (1921).[8] Then [408 U.S. 238, 326] came another landmark case, Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947).

Francis had been convicted of murder and sentenced to be electrocuted. The first time the current passed through him, there was a mechanical failure and he did not die. Thereafter, Francis sought to prevent a second electrocution on the ground that it would be a cruel and unusual punishment. Eight members of the Court assumed the applicability of the Eighth Amendment to the States.[9] The Court was virtually unanimous in agreeing that "[t]he traditional humanity of modern Anglo-American law forbids the infliction of unnecessary pain,"[10] but split 5-4 on whether Francis would, under the circumstances, be forced to undergo any excessive pain. Five members of the Court treated the case like In re Kemmler and held that the legislature adopted electrocution for a humane purpose, and that its will should not be thwarted because, in its desire to reduce pain and suffering in most cases, it may have inadvertently increased suffering in one particular case.[11] [408 U.S. 238, 327] The four dissenters felt that the case should be remanded for further facts.

As in Weems, the Court was concerned with excessive punishments. Resweber is perhaps most significant because the analysis of cruel and unusual punishment questions first advocated by the dissenters in O'Neil was at last firmly entrenched in the minds of an entire Court.

Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958), marked the next major cruel and unusual punishment case in this Court. Trop, a native-born American, was declared to have lost his citizenship by reason of a conviction by court-martial for wartime desertion. Writing for himself and Justices Black, DOUGLAS, and Whittaker, Chief Justice Warren concluded that loss of citizenship amounted to a cruel and unusual punishment that violated the Eighth Amendment.[12]

Emphasizing the flexibility inherent in the words "cruel and unusual," the Chief Justice wrote that "[t]he Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."[13] His approach to the problem was that utilized by the Court in Weems: he scrutinized the severity of the penalty in relation to the offense, examined the practices of other civilized nations of the world, and concluded that involuntary statelessness was an excessive and, therefore, an unconstitutional punishment. Justice Frankfurter, dissenting, urged that expatriation was not punishment, and that even if it were, it was not excessive. While he criticized the conclusion arrived at by the Chief Justice, his approach to the Eighth Amendment question was identical. [408 U.S. 238, 328]

Whereas in Trop a majority of the Court failed to agree on whether loss of citizenship was a cruel and unusual punishment, four years later a majority did agree in Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962), that a sentence of 90 days' imprisonment for violation of a California statute making it a crime to "be addicted to the use of narcotics" was cruel and unusual. MR. JUSTICE STEWART, writing the opinion of the Court, reiterated what the Court had said in Weems and what Chief Justice Warren wrote in Trop - that the cruel and unusual punishment clause was not a static concept, but one that must be continually re-examined "in the light of contemporary human knowledge."[14] The fact that the penalty under attack was only 90 days evidences the Court's willingness to carefully examine the possible excessiveness of punishment in a given case even where what is involved is a penalty that is familiar and widely accepted.[15]

We distinguished Robinson in Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514 (1968), where we sustained a conviction for drunkenness in a public place and a fine of $20. Four Justices dissented on the ground that Robinson was controlling. The analysis in both cases was the same; only the conclusion as to whether or not the punishment was excessive differed. Powell marked the last time prior to today's decision that the Court has had occasion to construe the meaning of the term "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Several principles emerge from these prior cases and serve as a beacon to an enlightened decision in the instant cases. [408 U.S. 238, 329]


  1. The New York Court of Appeals had recognized the unusual nature of the execution, but attributed it to a legislative desire to minimize the pain of persons executed.
  2. The prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments relevant to Weems was that found in the Philippine Bill of Rights. It was, however, borrowed from the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and had the same meaning. 217 U.S., at 367 .
  3. Id., at 373.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Id., at 381.
  7. Id., at 389-413. Mr. Justice Black expressed a similar point of view in his separate opinion in McGautha v. California, 402 U.S., at 226 (1971).
  8. Badders was found guilty on seven counts of using the mails as part of a scheme to defraud. He was sentenced to concurrent five-year sentences and to a $1,000 fine on each count. The Court summarily rejected his claim that the sentence was a cruel and unusual punishment. In United States ex rel. Milwaukee Social Democratic Publishing Co. v. Burleson, 255 U.S. 407 (1921), the Court upheld the denial of second-class mailing privileges to a newspaper that had allegedly printed articles conveying false reports of United States [408 U.S. 238, 326] conduct during the First World War with intent to cause disloyalty. Mr. Justice Brandeis dissented and indicated his belief that the "punishment" was unusual and possibly excessive under Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910). There is nothing in either of these cases demonstrating a departure from the approach used in Weems, or adding anything to it.
  9. Mr. Justice Frankfurter was the only member of the Court unwilling to make this assumption. However, like Chief Justice Fuller in In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1890), he examined the propriety of the punishment under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 329 U.S., at 471 . As MR. JUSTICE POWELL makes clear, Mr. Justice Frankfurter's analysis was different only in form from that of his Brethren; in substance, his test was fundamentally identical to that used by the rest of the Court.
  10. Id., at 463.
  11. English law required a second attempt at execution if the first attempt failed. L. Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law 185-186 (1948).
  12. MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN concurred and concluded that the statute authorizing deprivations of citizenship exceeded Congress' legislative powers. 356 U.S., at 114 .
  13. Id., at 101.
  14. 370 U.S., at 666 .
  15. Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962), removes any lingering doubts as to whether the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments is binding on the States. See also Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514 (1968).