Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Morality in Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Morality in Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence

Article excerpt


Morality in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is but one aspect of a more general topic: the use of moral reasoning by judges in American constitutional interpretation. Seeing the role of moral reasoning through the prism of the Eighth Amendment may help shed light on the more general topic because of three facts: a clear historical record about the Amendment, its frequent invocation in theoretical debates about morality and jurisprudence, and the way it has forced the Supreme Court to address morality directly in its opinions.

We know a great deal about the history of the Eighth Amendment. We know precisely what kind of debate surrounded the provisions that ultimately led to the adoption of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. (1) We also have a fairly specific understanding of what penalties were thought to be acceptable under the Clause at the time of its adoption. A sufficient historical record is thus available to interpret the Clause for those who choose to do so because they adhere to a narrow intentionalist theory of constitutional interpretation (as did the Justice Department under Ed Meese (2)). We know, for example, that the application of the death penalty to juveniles-the issue considered in Roper v. Simmons (3)--was considered acceptable so long as the defendants were at least seven years old. (4) If original intent and history are important to a judge, a thorough record is available for use.

In part because of the extensive historical record, the Eighth Amendment has opened the door to extensive debate over so-called "interpretive intent," drawing in such theorists as Paul Brest, (5) Ronald Dworkin, (6) Raoul Berger, (7) and H. Jefferson Powell. (8) These scholars often refer to the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause because the debates at the time of adoption allow competing sides to make arguments about whether the Framers intended the clauses of the Constitution to be interpreted by their own intentions. As a result, Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is comparatively well theorized.

Finally, throughout Supreme Court opinions interpreting the Clause--from Weems v. United States, (9) to Justice Stewart's opinion in Gregg v. Georgia, (10) to Justice Kennedy's opinion in Roper (11)--one finds Justices who are self-conscious about their use of moral reasoning in their jurisprudence. The Court's Eighth Amendment opinions, like those under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, are miniature essays in judicial philosophy, so Eighth Amendment interpretation is already theorized as a moral enterprise by the judges who have interpreted it. The Eighth Amendment is therefore a good illustration of the general topic of morality in constitutional interpretation.

A longer article might have discussed what elements besides moral reasoning go into constitutional interpretation. For example, some jurists turn to the history surrounding adoption of the Constitution, mining it for either the intentions of the Framers or the beliefs of their original audience. Others turn to Supreme Court precedent, to the semantics of the constitutional text, or to its pragmatics in the context of its utterance. Some judges find a place for default rules, which Judge Frank Easterbrook calls, in a different context, "tiebreakers." (12) These are just a few of the many things a complete theory of interpretation might include. (13)

For this Essay, I focus only on the role of moral reasoning in constitutional interpretation, analyzing this important factor through the lens of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. In particular, the Essay pursues three aspects of this topic: first, whether constitutional interpretation is, can, or should be value-free; second, what the sources of values might be for judges when they look to values in their constitutional interpretation; third, whether judges doing such interpretation should ever rely on their own valuations. …

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