Summary of Ewing v. California
Citation: 538 U.S. 11 (2003)
Relevant Facts: Gary Ewing was convicted of felony grand theft following his theft of golf clubs valued at over $1000. At the time of his conviction, Ewing already had a lengthy criminal history dating back over twenty years, involving petty theft, grand theft, robbery, and other offenses. Of particular note, Ewing had been convicted of both burglary and robbery approximately seven years before the crime that gave rise to this appeal. When he stole the golf clubs, he was still on parole following his release from prison related to those two felony convictions. Following his conviction in this case, the trial judge declined to exercise discretion and convict Ewing of a misdemeanor only, as he was allowed but not required to do under California law. After determining that Ewing should be punished for a felony offense, the trial judge applied California’s “three strikes" law, where a criminal defendant must be sentenced indeterminate life sentence, which in this case was twenty-five years to life. Ewing claimed that the sentence was disproportionate to his crimes and violated the Eighth Amendment. The California Court of Appeals affirmed, and the California Supreme Court denied review.
Issue: Does a mandatory sentence for a third or subsequent felony where the final felony is non-violent and relatively minor violate the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Holding: No, “three strikes" laws are constitutional and consistent with the Eighth Amendment. The Court failed to reach a majority regarding rationale for its holding.
Reasoning: Justice O’Connor delivered the plurality opinion, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Kennedy. Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment only, and each filed a separate concurring opinion.
Plurality/Concurrence: Justice O’Connor, writing for the plurality and announcing the judgment of the Court, explained that the Eighth Amendment contains a proportionality principle that applies to non-capital sentences. As she explained, the Eighth Amendment analysis must be guided by objective factors, but does not require strict proportionality. Rather, only extreme sentences that are grossly disproportional to the crimes charged will raise constitutional concerns. States adopted enhanced punishment for repeat offenders are justified in concluding that career criminals pose a special threat to society undeterred by traditional punishment or lesser sentences. Legislative desire to reduce recidivism and reasonable public safety concerns are both adequate rationales to justify, as in this case, enhanced punishment. In this case, Justice O’Connor noted that the grand theft conviction alone was a serious charge, and the trial court was justified in considering prior convictions in imposing a lengthy sentence. Furthermore, the trial court was effectuating legislative judgment that repeat offenders should be subjected to heightened punishment, and that legislative determination is entitled to judicial deference. Justice Scalia concurred in the result, writing separately to point out that while the sentence here did not violate the Eighth Amendment, those protections only extend to preventing certain modes of punishment- not the length of a prison sentence. Furthermore, Justice Scalia doubted the wisdom of an Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis, concluding that such a principle was incapable of reasoned application. Justice Thomas concurred in the result, writing separately to point out that the Eighth Amendment does not contain a proportionality principle. In his view, even if the Court could apply a proportionality principle in practice, it would be unnecessary to do so.
Dissent: Justice Stevens dissented, joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. In his view, the Eighth Amendment not only allowed a proportionality analysis, capable of judicial enforcement on a case by case basis, it was constitutionally required. Justice Stevens pointed out that judges were long tasked with dispensing appropriate punishment before the advent of sentencing guidelines, and were trusted in other contexts to decide the merits of a particular case without bright-line guidelines. Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg. Justice Breyer conceded that overturning sentences as disproportional should be rare, but argued that such a result was correct here and described what he felt was the proper framework for reaching that conclusion. First, he argued the Court should consider the sentence in proportion to the crime adjudged by three factors: sentence length in absolute terms, the crime committed, and the defendant’s criminal history. If the Court determines that the sentence is probably disproportional under that analysis, it should proceed to a comparative analysis with other jurisdictions. Finding the sentence here disproportional, Justice Breyer considered a comparative analysis from two angles: first, the sentence that would have been imposed on the same crime in other jurisdictions and second, other crimes that would have produced the same sentence in other jurisdictions. In this case, Justice Breyer contended that it was improper to impose the same sentence for subsequent, non-violent felonies as would be imposed for violent felonies, and concluded that the sentence here was improper.
Conclusion: In the absence of a majority opinion regarding the rationale for the Court’s decision, the only true outcome of this case is that “three strikes" sentences for recidivist do not necessarily violate the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee of protection from cruel and unusual punishment.