Lockyer V. Andrade: California Three Strikes Law Survives Challenge Based on Federal Law That Is Anything but "Clearly Established"

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Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003)


In Lockyer v. Andrade, the United States Supreme Court held the California Court of Appeal did not err in its interpretation of Court precedent. (1) That court held that sentencing a convict under the California three strikes law to fifty years to life in prison for two counts of petty theft (2) was not "contrary to" or "an unreasonable application of" Supreme Court jurisprudence. (3) The defendant, Leandro Andrade, had challenged his sentence under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. (4)

This Note examines the opinions in Lockyer and concludes that the law of the Supreme Court in the area of the Eighth Amendment's application to a term-of-years sentence was ambiguous at best. This ambiguity led the Supreme Court to correctly conclude that the California Court of Appeal did not unreasonably apply Federal law when it reviewed Andrade's Eight Amendment claim. The majority opinion authored by Justice O'Connor provides clarity in this area by showing substantial deference to the laws of the States. Lockyer demonstrates the Court's reluctance to interfere with States' administration of their criminal justice systems. Additionally, the majority opinion comports with congressional goals of limiting the abuse of Federal habeas corpus to review by state prisoners. Justice Souter's dissenting opinion is mistaken because it relied entirely on only one case. Moreover, if applied, the dissent's analysis would result in a flood of prisoner litigation aimed at rendering their sentences null under their respective State sentencing schemes, and thus does not respect the State's right to determine its own penological system. Finally, the dissent fails to recognize that the proper body for changing the California sentencing scheme is not the Supreme Court, but rather the legislature of the State of California.



In June 1992, eighteen-year-old Kimber Reynolds came home to Fresno for a friend's wedding. (5) Two parolees passed by her riding on a motorcycle and tried to grab her purse. (6) When Kimber fought back, the driver shot her in the head with a .357 caliber handgun. (7) She died two days later. (8) The driver was killed by police in a shootout. (9) The accomplice received a nine year sentence, and was eligible for parole again after he served half his term. (10) Kimber's death began a crusade by her father to strengthen criminal sentencing laws in California, and he authored the "three strikes" concept. (11) In April 1993, Reynold's idea received a cold reception from the California legislature, which killed his bill in committee. (12) He believed the only way to toughen sentencing was through submission of a proposition directly to the people of California. (13) He faced an uphill battle, with no political support and no money to finance a voter awareness campaign. (14)

Later that year twelve-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her bedroom in her Petaluma home. (15) The search for Polly garnered national media attention and ended with the discovery of her body in December. (16)

The kidnapper, Richard Allen Davis, led police to the body. (17) Davis's record showed chronic disrespect for the law, including multiple kidnappings, sexual assault, burglary, drug possession, and assault. (18) The media concentrated on Davis's despicable record as they covered the Klass story. (19) Public outrage erupted when Davis's record became known. (20) Reynolds was able to tap into that outrage, and a ground swell of public support for his "three strikes" campaign emerged. (21) The legislature passed the bill, and Governor Pete Wilson signed "three strikes" into law in March 1994. (22) Even though the state had enacted the bill, Reynolds continued to campaign for the ballot initiative, titled Proposition 184. (23) Reynolds pursued the ratification of Proposition 184 because he wanted to place the recidivist mechanism beyond legislative amending power. …