Sullivan v. State - Florida Supreme Court Case Analysis

Topics: Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Supreme Court of the United States, Capital punishment Pages: 12 (3052 words) Published: September 28, 2013

Sullivan v. State: Is Proportionality Really in the Eighth Amendment?

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction……………………………………………………………………………………………………………3

General Background and Procedural Information……………………4

Origins of the 8th Amendment and History of
Proportionality……………………………………………………………………………………………………4

Capital Crimes and Proportionality:
Furman, Gregg, Coker………………………………………………………………………………………7

The Proportionality See-Saw: Rummel to Harmelin………………9

The Second Dimension: Criminal Sentence of a Minor……13

Prediction and Conclusion: Florida Should Prevail………15

Introduction

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution requires that the government impose no punishment that is “cruel and unusual.”1 One question that rises from this amendment is whether or not a sentence is unconstitutional if it is disproportional to the crime committed. In recent past, the United States Supreme Court has struggled with this issue and with coming to a consensus on how to view proportionality in the Eighth Amendment.2 Recently, the United States Supreme Court has decided to hear a Florida case, Sullivan v. State, 987 So.2d 83 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008), where a minor received a life without parole sentence in a conviction for rape.3 This note will analyze the Sullivan case and predict how the Court will likely rule. There are two dimensions that this note will discuss: First, the Eighth Amendment jurisprudence of the United States Supreme Court regarding proportionality in sentencing. And second, the Court’s treatment of minors under the Eight Amendment’s “cruel and unusual” clause. In conclusion, this note will show that the United States Supreme Court is likely to clarify its decision in Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), and affirm the decision of the Florida courts to uphold the life sentence.4

General Background and Procedural Information
Originally, as with all of the first ten amendments of the Constitution, the Eighth Amendment only applied to the federal government.5 However, in Robinson v. California, the United States Supreme Court held the “cruel and unusual” clause of the Eighth Amendment applied to the states, through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.6 Professor Alexander Reinert notes in an article that once this clause was incorporated, the Court faced many challenges to state criminal sentences as being “cruel and unusual,” particularly capital crimes.7 Important for the purposes of this note, is that through the incorporation made by Robinson is how the Sullivan case reached the United States Supreme Court out of the Florida state courts. After the First District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s life without parole sentence, the Florida Supreme Court dismissed review. Once this occurred, it gave Sullivan the opportunity to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in turn granted to hear the case.8

Origins of the 8th Amendment and History of Proportionality
As with most laws in America, the language of the Eighth Amendment originated from England.9 The phrase “cruel and unusual” comes from a provision in the English Declaration of Rights.10 It is important to mention this because there is quite a debate on exactly what “cruel and unusual” meant to the English and how the Framers interpreted it in drafting the Bill of Rights.11 For instance, Justice Scalia has argued that “unusual” meant “illegal,” and that it had nothing to do with disproportionate sentences, only those that were arbitrary.12 In contrast, others have argued that the clause includes that thee proportion of the sentence to the crime committed not be excessive.13 The debate continues today, and is an essential element is deciding how the Court will rule in Sullivan.

Discussing Eighth Amendment jurisprudence would take many pages and volumes. However, a brief overview is required to...
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