Rummel v. Estelle 445 U.S. 263 (1980)

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RUMMEL v. ESTELLE 445 U.S. 263 (1980)

oliver wendell holmes once said that the Supreme Court sits to expound law, not do justice. This case is proof. On the premise that the length of a sentence is "purely a matter of legislative judgment," Justice william h. rehnquist for a 5–4 Court found no cruel and unusual punishment in Rummel's mandatory life sentence after his third felony conviction for obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses. Rummel argued that his sentence was disproportionate to his crime. Rehnquist replied that the possibility of a parole in twelve years and the right of a state legislature to fix penalties against recidivists overcame Rummel's argument. Rehnquist declared that the state legislature was acting within its competence in prescribing punishment and that the state has a legitimate interest in requiring extended incarceration of habitual criminals. The Court would not substitute its judgment for the legislature's and overturn a sentence which was neither inherently barbarous nor grossly disproportionate to the offense.

Justice lewis f. powell for the dissenters believed that Rummel's life sentence "would be viewed as grossly unjust by virtually every layman and lawyer." The cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment, extended by the fourteenth amendment to the states, Powell argued, prohibited grossly disproportionate punishments as well as barbarous ones. Rummel's three felonies netted him about $230 in frauds. He never used violence, threatened anyone, or endangered the peace of society. Texas treated his crimes as no different from those of a three-time murderer. The Court's decision weakened the use of the cruel and unusual punishment clause in noncapital cases.

Leonard W. Levy