Purposeless Restraints: Fourteenth Amendment Rationality Scrutiny and the Constitutional Review of Prison Sentences


This Article presents an analysis and defense of the Supreme Court's current Eighth Amendment case law on prison sentencing. I argue that in the pivotal cases of Ewing v. California and Harmelin v. Michigan, a plurality of the Supreme Court has assimilated Eighth Amendment review of individual prison sentences to rationality review of state action under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. When the cases are read rightly, it becomes clear that Eighth Amendment review does not really ask whether a sentence is "grossly disproportionate," as the Court has asserted; rather, it seeks to identify arbitrary and capricious prison sentences that suggest a procedural defect in the sentencing process. I defend this doctrine on the grounds of original understanding, stare decisis, neutral interpretation, and normative federalism values. Finally, I show how an interpretation of Eighth Amendment prison sentencing review as rationality review can be squared with the Supreme Court's decisions involving constitutional proportionality review of other noncapital sanctions such as fines, punitive damages, and conditions of confinement.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure

Date of this Version

March 2005