John Stinneford’s latest article sheds fresh light on the original public meaning of the Eighth Amendment. Stinneford provides a cogent rejoinder to Justice Scalia’s position that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause contains no proportionality principle. But to show that the Clause contains some proportionality requirement gets us only part of the way to an understanding of what that proportionality principle demands. And Stinneford’s work falters in its articulation of the proportionality requirement of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as understood in 1791. He claims, in essence, that the Clause was understood as generally constraining Congress from inflicting punishments that were significantly harsher than those imposed at common law for the same offense. While Stinneford’s assertion that the Clause imposed common-law constraints on Congress’s power to punish is well supported, he incorrectly assumes a consensus in 1791 about the nature of the common law. To the contrary, the conceptions of the common law in 1791 were far from homogenous. Specifically, around that time, a more modern, Realist notion of the common law began to emerge and was championed by the Anti-Federalists, who conditioned ratification of the Constitution on the inclusion of a Bill of Rights and whose views are therefore critical to an understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. Thus, while Stinneford is probably correct that the Clause was widely understood in 1791 as imposing common-law constraints on the federal government’s power to punish, it is unlikely that there was any consensus as to what that meant. In particular, the Anti-Federalists—and their political heirs, the Republicans—took a more state-centered approach than Stinneford would allow.
Sept 3, 2013
97 Va. L. Rev. Online 51