Erwin Chemerinsky (1953–)

Erwin Chemerinsky was born May 14, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up on the south side of Chicago in a working class family and was the first member of his family to go to college. He attended Northwestern University and received his Bachelors of Science degree in 1975 with highest distinction. He then earned his Juris Doctorate in 1978, graduating cum laude from Harvard Law School.

After graduating from law school, he began working as an attorney for the U. S. Department of Justice. At the Justice Department, he worked in the Fraud Section of the Civil Division. In 1980, he decided to pursue an academic career and returned to his native Chicago to begin teaching at De Paul University School of Law. Three years later, Professor Chemerinsky began teaching at University of Southern California (USC) Law School, where he continues to teach. He currently is the Sydney M. Irmas Professor of Public Interest Law, Ethics, and Political Science and teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Federal Courts. He has published numerous articles and books including two major treaties on constitutional law and federal jurisdiction.

Professor Chemerinsky has been influential in establishing civil liberties legislation in the state of California. He was instrumental in drafting the California Privacy Protection Act. Moreover, in April 2000, he was selected to investigate civil liberties violations in the Rampart scandal. In this scandal, police officers in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) were accused of making false arrests, framing innocent people, and offering false testimony at trials. Chemerinsky’s analysis indicated that civil liberties violations occurred because of flaws and oversights in the police and justice systems. He, therefore, recommended significant changes in both the police and justice systems, which ultimately were instated.

Chemerinsky also has argued a number of civil liberties cases in the federal courts. His most notable work challenged the constitutionality of California’s controversial ‘‘three strikes’’ legislation. This legislation requires a person with two prior ‘‘serious’’ or ‘‘violent’’ felony convictions (or ‘‘strikes’’), who is convicted of a third felony, to be sentenced to twenty- five years to life for the crime. Chemerinsky challenged the constitutionality of this law in Bray v. Ylst, arguing the law violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on ‘‘cruel and unusual’’ punishment. The U. S. Court of Appeals agreed. While the Bray decision did not invalidate the ‘‘three strikes’’ law generally, it did determine that circumstances exist in which an indeterminate life sentence is ‘‘grossly disproportionate’’ for the crime, and therefore, is unconstitutional.

Professor Chemerinsky continued his challenge of California’s ‘‘three strikes’’ law in the U. S. Supreme Court. In Lockyer v. Andrade, he argued that, like Bray, Andrade’s punishment for petty theft under ‘‘three strikes’’ was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled that the California Court of Appeals decision, which upheld Andrade’s twenty-five year to life sentence, was constitutional. This is because the California court’s decision was not contrary to ‘‘established federal law.’’

FRANCENE M. ENGEL

References and Further Reading

  • Chemerinsky, Erwin. Federal Jurisdiction. 4th ed. New York: Aspen Publishers, 2003. 
  • ———. Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies. 2nd ed. New York: Aspen Law and Business, 2002. 
  • ———. Interpreting the Constitution. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1987. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Andrade v. Lockyer, 270 F. 3d 743 (2001) 
  • Bray v. Ylst, 283 F. 3d 1019 (2002) 
  • Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003)

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