A Series on the Constitutional Amendments: The Eighth

‘Back in pre-Revolutionary America cruel and unusual punishment meant the rack and burning at the stake… in more recent rulings it has been taken to mean the absence of cable television and denial of sex-change operations, or just overcrowding in the prisons.’

– Tom Clancy

Recent controversies over waterboarding has brought to the forefront the idea of cruel and unusual punishment. This is certainly a topic that is not without its controversy throughout the history of the United States. The founders had a goal in mind that the justice system needed to have credibility. It cannot be understated enough that torture to the point of agony and death is wrong and I will not condone it. However, when it comes to unusual punishment this is where a lot of grey area exists. The eighth amendment reads as such:

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

The part that is often overlooked here is bail and fines. These parts play into the seventh amendment’s requirement of the right to jury trial in civil matters over a certain dollar amount. At the end of the day it comes down to a piece of British law that the colonists rather liked. While the British were certainly unusually cruel to the colonists in the area of taxation without representation, there were a lot of ideas that the colonists wanted to emulate in their own constitution. While this Amendment seems cut and dried in its wording, it’s in the interpretation that the Amendment finds itself being discussed.

While the death penalty is a hotbed of controversy and opinions, several cases were tried regarding whether or not it was a form of cruel or unusual punishment. The first case was Stanford v. Kentucky (1989) in which the Supreme court ruled in a 5-4 decision that there is nothing in the Eighth Amendment that precludes minors from the death penalty. Yet, in Roper v. Simmons (2005) the Court found that this was unconstitutional. These two cases prove that there is even division amongst those who are to hold the Constitution intact as best they can, the Eighth Amendment has a lot of grey area.

The case of United States v. Bajakajian (1998) is one that deals with excessive fines. Under the law, a man travelling with over $300,000 dollars in his possession was fined the entire sum because he failed to report it. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where they ruled in a 5-4 decision that this constituted an excessive fine. The reasoning behind this was that the activity he participated in was legal, he simply failed to follow a law regarding the procedures in participating in that activity. They felt that this did not constitute the confiscation of the entire amount of money.

Furman v. Georgia (1972) is the case that helped lay the groundwork for those aforementioned cases. In this case, Mr. Furman was given the death penalty for what was basically manslaughter. This was a mandatory sentence and he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. In their unanimous decision, the Court found in favor of Mr. Furman saying that the mandatory sentence was unconstitutional based on cruel and unusual punishment. The important part of their ruling was that they laid down a standard to hold the clause into accountability.

The four standard that came about from the Furman case are as follows:

Any punishment that is so severe as to degrade human dignity, including torture, any punishment that is inflicted solely in an arbitrary manner, any punishment that is, or would be, wholly rejected by society, any punishment that is clearly or blatantly unnecessary. This is the crux of most of the cases the Supreme Court tried in regards to the Eighth Amendment. The real arguments come from what is considered under those four guidelines in regards to Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

The key impact of the Eighth Amendment is to lend integrity to the justice system. In order for the fourth through seventh Amendments to work properly as a justice system we have to have integrity. Most anyone will confess to anything when put under enough strain or torture and in the same vein most people will do whatever it takes to avoid a harsher sentence than they think is deserved. The Eighth Amendment maintains that confessions and interrogations are fair and the threat of unusual punishments is not held over the heads of those that are tried fairly.


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