Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11; 123 S. Ct. 1179; 155 L. Ed. 2d 108 (2003)

Facts—Largely influenced by the kidnapping and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas by a kidnapper who had been released from prison, California adopted a “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law designed to increase punishments for prior serious offenders. Under this law, Ewing, who had been previously convicted of four serious or violent felonies, was sentenced to life in prison after a conviction for shoplifting three golf clubs valued at about $1,200. In deciding whether to convict under the recidivist statute, California allowed a judge to determine whether to classify some crimes, called “wobblers,” as misdemeanors or felonies and to vacate allegations of prior “serious” or “violent” felony convictions. After reviewing Ewing’s prior offenses, the court sentenced him to a term of twenty-five years to life. The state Court of Appeals affirmed, and the California Supreme Court denied review.

Question—Does the sentence of twenty-five years to life violate the Eighth Amendment provision against cruel and unusual punishment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment?


ReasonsJ. O’Connor (for three justices in a 5–4 decision). In sentencing Ew- ing, the Court reviewed Ewing’s complete criminal history, including the fact that he committed his last crime while on parole. Harmelin v. Michigan, 501

U.S. 957 (1991), a case upholding the sentence of a first-time offender for possession of drugs, established that the Eighth Amendment contained only a “‘narrow proportionality principle’ that ‘applies to noncapital sentences.’” Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980) upheld a state recidivist statute although Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983) prohibited a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a seventh nonviolent felony. Harmelin established four principles of proportionality review—”the primacy of the legislature, the variety of legitimate penological schemes, the nature of our federal system, and the requirement that proportionality review be guided by objective factors.” The California legislature decided “that individuals who have repeatedly engaged in serious or violent criminal behavior, and whose conduct has not been deterred by more conventional approaches to punishment, must be isolated from society in order to protect the public safety.” Although its particular solution is new, judicial deference to state legislative policy decisions is not. The California law specifically addressed the problem of recidivism and attempted to deter crimes. The Court does not sit “as a ‘superlegislature’ to second-guess these policy choices. It is enough that the State of California has a reasonable basis for believing that dramatically enhanced sentences for habitual felons ‘advances the goals of [its] criminal justice system in any substantial way.’” Ewing’s sentence is long, but it must be measured against his long record of prior crimes. “The gravity of his offense was not merely ‘shoplifting three golf clubs.’ Rather, Ewing was convicted of felony grand theft for stealing nearly $1,200 worth of merchandise after previously having been convicted of at least two ‘violent’ or ‘serious’ felonies.”

J. Scalia, concurring, repeated his view, expressed in Harmelin v. Michigan, that, with the possible exception of capital cases, the Eighth Amendment prohibits only certain modes of punishment rather than disproportionate sentences per se.

J. Thomas, concurring, believed that the proportionality test announced in

Solem v. Helm was “incapable of judicial application.”

J. Stevens, dissenting, argued that “proportionality review is not only capable of judicial application but also required by the Eighth Amendment.”

J. Breyer, dissenting, argued that the sentence in this case violated the “gross disproportionality” standard, which he sought to illustrate by comparing the sentence that had been upheld in this case with other cases where similar sentences for similar offenses had been struck down. He found that California’s sentence was disproportionate to those meted out in California prior to the law at issue as well as to sentences it meted out for other crimes. He also argued that the law was disproportional to punishments in other states and at the federal level. He further traced the “wobbler” classifications to a number of anomalies, and, while acknowledging that the Eighth Amendment created no “bright line” rule, argued that courts need to continue to patrol the outer boundaries of state-imposed punishments.

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