Friday, October 22, 2010

Justice Stevens Speaks Out

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is gone but not forgotten (how could he be, with all those dissents?!).  Sitting justices do their talking almost solely through their opinions, but when they leave the bench, they have lots of other avenues for sharing interesting stories and opinions about past cases.

The National Law Journal features an article describing Justice Stevens' October 7 speech in Washington, DC, during which he picked apart the opinion that entrenched mandatory minimum sentences in our system:  Harmelin v. Michigan.

In Harmelin, decided in 1991, a defendant challenged Michigan's so-called "650 Lifer" law, which required a mandatory life without parole sentence for any defendant who possessed 650 grams or more of cocaine or heroin.  Defendant Harmelin thought this mandatory sentence (which he received) was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Justice Stevens agreed (and still does), but he was on the losing side of that case.  It was Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia who wrote the opinion upholding the "650 Lifer" law, saying that the Eighth Amendment prohibited certain types of punishments (like torture) but didn't require that punishments fit their crimes.  Thank goodness for FAMM and its members in Michigan -- we later got the state's legislature to add parole eligibility for 650 Lifers and repeal many of the state's drug mandatory minimums.

Justice Stevens' speech is a good read, even if you're not a lawyer.  And he's right about the Eighth Amendment -- if "cruel and unusual" doesn't include excessive punishments, that Amendment isn't much of a protection at all.