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re Kemmler, 136 U. S. 436 (1890) (dictum). It is only 14 years since Mr. Chief Justice Warren, speaking for four members of the Court, stated without equivocation:

"Whatever the arguments may be against capital punishment, both on moral grounds and in terms of accomplishing the purposes of punishment—and they are forceful—the death penalty has been employed throughout our history, and, in a day when it is still widely accepted, it cannot be said to violate the constitutional concept of cruelty.” Trop v.

Dulles, 356 U. S., at 99. It is only one year since Mr. Justice Black made his feelings clear on the constitutional issue:

“The Eighth Amendment forbids 'cruel and unusual punishments.' In my view, these words cannot be read to outlaw capital punishment because that penalty was in common use and authorized by law here and in the countries from which our ancestors came at the time the Amendment was adopted. It is inconceivable to me that the framers intended to end capital punishment by the Amendment.” McGautha v. California, 402 U. S. 183, 226 (1971)

(separate opinion). By limiting its grants of certiorari, the Court has refused even to hear argument on the Eighth Amendment claim on two occasions in the last four years. Witherspoon v. Illinois, cert. granted, 389 U. S. 1035, rev'd, 391 U. S. 510 (1968); McGautha y. California, cert. granted, 398 U. S. 936 (1970), aff’d, 402 U. S. 183 (1971). In these cases the Court confined its attention to the procedural aspects of capital trials, it being implicit that the punishment itself could be constitutionally imposed. Nonetheless, the Court has now been asked to hold that a punishment clearly permissible under the Constitution at the time of its adoption and accepted as such by every

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408 U.S.

member of the Court until today, is suddenly so cruel as to be incompatible with the Eighth Amendment.

Before recognizing such an instant evolution in the law, it seems fair to ask what factors have changed that capital punishment should now be "cruel” in the constitutional sense as it has not been in the past. It is apparent that there has been no change of constitutional significance in the nature of the punishment itself. Twentieth century modes of execution surely involve no greater physical suffering than the means employed at the time of the Eighth Amendment's adoption. And although a man awaiting execution must inevitably experience extraordinary mental anguish, no one suggests that this anguish is materially different from that experienced by condemned men in 1791, even though protracted appellate review processes have greatly increased the waiting time on "death row.” To be sure, the ordeal of the condemned man may be thought cruel in the sense that all suffering is thought cruel. But if the Constitution proscribed every punishment producing severe emotional stress, then capital punishment would clearly have been impermissible in 1791.

However, the inquiry cannot end here. For reasons unrelated to any change in intrinsic cruelty, the Eighth Amendment prohibition cannot fairly be limited to those punishments thought excessively cruel and barbarous at the time of the adoption of the Eighth Amendment. A punishment is inordinately cruel, in the sense we must deal with it in these cases, chiefly as perceived by the society so characterizing it. The standard of extreme cruelty is not merely descriptive, but necessarily embodies a moral judgment. The standard itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change. This notion is not

4 But see Bluestone & McGahee, Reaction to Extreme Stress: Impending Death by Execution, 119 Am. J. Psychiatry 393 (1962).


BURGER, C. J., dissenting

new to Eighth Amendment adjudication. In Weems v. United States, 217 U. S. 349 (1910), the Court referred with apparent approval to the opinion of the commentators that "[t]he clause of the Constitution ... may be therefore progressive, and is not fastened to the obsolete but may acquire meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by a humane justice.” 217 U. S., at 378. Mr. Chief Justice Warren, writing the plurality opinion in Trop v. Dulles, supra, stated, “The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” 356 U. S., at 101. Nevertheless, the Court up to now has never actually held that a punishment has become impermissibly cruel due to a shift in the weight of accepted social values; nor has the Court suggested judicially manageable criteria for measuring such a shift in moral


The Court's quiescence in this area can be attributed to the fact that in a democratic society legislatures, not courts, are constituted to respond to the will and consequently the moral values of the people. For this reason, early commentators suggested that the "cruel and unusual punishments” clause was an unnecessary constitutional provision. As acknowledged in the principal brief for petitioners, "both in constitutional contemplation and in fact, it is the legislature, not the Court, which responds to public opinion and immediately reflects the society's standards of decency.”


5 See 2 J. Story, On the Constitution § 1903 (5th ed. 1891); 1 T. Cooley, Constitutional Limitations 694 (8th ed. 1927). See also Joseph Story on Capital Punishment (ed. by J. Hogan), 43 Calif. L. Rev. 76 (1955).

6 Brief for Petitioner in Aikens v. California, No. 68–5027, p. 19 (cert. dismissed, 406 U. S. 813 (1972)). See post, at 443 n. 38. This, plainly, was the foundation of Mr. Justice Black's strong views on this subject expressed most recently in McGautha v. California, 402 U. S. 183, 226 (1971) (separate opinion).

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Accordingly, punishments such as branding and the cutting off of ears, which were commonplace at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, passed from the penal scene without judicial intervention because they became basically offensive to the people and the legislatures responded to this sentiment.

Beyond any doubt, if we were today called upon to review such punishments, we would find them excessively cruel because we could say with complete assurance that contemporary society universally rejects such bizarre penalties. However, this speculation on the Court's probable reaction to such punishments is not of itself significant. The critical fact is that this Court has never had to hold that a mode of punishment authorized by a domestic legislature was so cruel as to be fundamentally at odds with our basic notions of decency. Cf. Weems v. United States, supra. Judicial findings of impermissible cruelty have been limited, for the most part, to offensive punishments devised without specific authority by prison officials, not by legislatures. See, e. g., Jackson V. Bishop, 404 F. 2d 571 (CA8 1968); Wright v. McMann, 387 F. 2d 519 (CA2 1967). The paucity of judicial decisions invalidating legislatively prescribed punishments is powerful evidence that in this country legislatures have in fact been responsive-albeit belatedly at times—to changes in social attitudes and moral values.

I do not suggest that the validity of legislatively authorized punishments presents no justiciable issue under the Eighth Amendment, but, rather, that the primacy of the legislative role narrowly confines the scope of judicial inquiry. Whether or not provable, and whether or not true at all times, in a democracy the legislative judgment is presumed to embody the basic standards of decency prevailing in the society. This presumption can only be negated by unambiguous and compelling evidence of legislative default.



C. J., dissenting


There are no obvious indications that capital punishment offends the conscience of society to such a degree that our traditional deference to the legislative judgment must be abandoned. It is not a punishment such as burning at the stake that everyone would ineffably find to be repugnant to all civilized standards. Nor is it a punishment so roundly condemned that only a few aberrant legislatures have retained it on the statute books. Capital punishment is authorized by statute in 40 States, the District of Columbia, and in the federal courts for the commission of certain crimes.? On four occasions in the last 11 years Congress has added to the list of federal crimes punishable by death. In looking for reliable indicia of contemporary attitude, none more trustworthy has been advanced.

One conceivable source of evidence that legislatures have abdicated their essentially barometric role with respect to community values would be public opinion polls, of which there have been many in the past decade addressed to the question of capital punishment. Without assessing the reliability of such polls, or intimating that any judicial reliance could ever be placed on them,

7 See Department of Justice, National Prisoner Statistics No. 46, Capital Punishment 1930–1970, p. 50 (Aug. 1971). Since the publication of the Department of Justice report, capital punishment has been judicially abolished in California, People v. Anderson, 6 Cal. 3d 628, 493 P. 2d 880, cert. denied, 406 U. S. 958 (1972). The States where capital punishment is no longer authorized are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

8 See Act of Jan. 2, 1971, Pub. L. 91–644, Tit. IV, § 15, 84 Stat. 1891, 18 U. S. C. § 351; Act of Oct. 15, 1970, Pub. L. 91–452, Tit. XI, § 1102 (a), 84 Stat. 956, 18 U. S. C. § 844 (f) (i); Act of Aug. 28, 1965, 79 Stat. 580, 18 U. S. C. § 1751; Act of Sept. 5, 1961, § 1, 75 Stat. 466, 49 U. S. C. § 1472 (i). See also opinion of MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, post, at 412-413.

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