Ingraham v. Wright 430 U.S. 651 (1977)

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INGRAHAM v. WRIGHT 430 U.S. 651 (1977)

Two Florida junior high school students, disciplined by severe paddling, sued school officials for damages and injunctive relief, claiming that the paddling constituted cruel and unusual punishment. They also claimed that they had been deprived of their right to a prior hearing in violation of their procedural due process rights. The lower federal courts denied relief, and the Supreme Court affirmed, 5–4.

For the majority, Justice lewis f. powell, a former school board president, concluded that the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment was limited to cases of punishment for criminal offenses and thus had no application to paddling as a means of school discipline. The openness of public schools provided a safeguard against abusive punishments of the kind that might be visited on prisoners. common law restraints on the privilege of school officials to administer corporal punishment were sufficient to prevent excesses. As for due process, Powell conceded that the paddling had implicated a "liberty" interest, but he concluded that due process required no hearing, in view of the availability of common law remedies or damages.

For the dissenters, Justice byron r. white argued that it was anomalous to conclude that some punishments are "cruel and unusual" when inflicted on convicts but raise no such problem when they are inflicted on children for breaches of school discipline. The relevant inquiry, White argued, was not the label of criminal punishment but the purpose to punish. While some spanking might be permissible in public schools, the majority was wrong in saying "that corporal punishment in the public schools, no matter how barbaric, inhumane, or severe, is never limited by the Eighth Amendment." Here the record showed not just spanking but severe beatings. Furthermore, the risk of erroneous punishment—a crucial aspect of the due process calculus established in mathews v. eldridge (1976)—demanded at least some informal discussion between student and disciplinarian before paddling was administered. The common law damages remedy offered no redress for punishments mistakenly administered in good faith and obviously could not undo the infliction of pain.

Ingraham seems an unstable precedent. Constitutional law, following social practice, has increasingly insisted that children be treated as persons, as members of the community deserving of respect. (See children ' srights.) The due process right to a hearing rests partly on the premise that the dignity of being heard, before the state takes away one's liberty or property, is one of the differences between being a participating citizen and being an object of administration. The Ingraham majority, unmoved by such concerns, reflected nostalgia for a day when children were seen and not heard.

Kenneth L. Karst
(1986)

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Ingraham v. Wright 430 U.S. 651 (1977)

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