Rummel v. Estelle

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In Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld mandatory life sentence under Texas' recidivist statute for a third felony conviction in the following series:

  • fraudulent use of a credit card to obtain $ 80 worth of goods or services
  • passing a forged check in the amount of $ 28.36
  • obtaining $ 120.75 by false pretenses

Defendant's challenge that the life imprisonment violated the Eighth Amendment was rejected.

In a dissent written by Justice Lewis Powell and supported by three Justices, they stated that:

"We are construing a living Constitution. The sentence imposed upon the petitioner would be viewed as grossly unjust by virtually every layman and lawyer. In my view, objective criteria clearly establish that a mandatory life sentence for defrauding persons of about $ 230 crosses any rationally drawn line separating punishment that lawfully may be imposed from that which is proscribed by the Eighth Amendment."

The dissent quoted the following from Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 373 (1910):

"Time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes. Therefore a principle to be vital must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it birth. This is particularly true of constitutions. They are not ephemeral enactments, designed to meet passing occasions. They are, to use the words of Chief Justice Marshall, 'designed to approach immortality as nearly as human institutions can approach it.'"
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