Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991)

In Harmelin v. Michigan, the Supreme Court revisited its holding in Solem v. Helm (1983) that the Eighth Amendment, applicable to states through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits grossly disproportionate sentences in criminal cases. Harmelin had been convicted in Michigan state court of possession of 672 grams of cocaine and had received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

A five-member majority of the Court agreed only that the mandatory imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of parole did not violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment despite the factfinder’s inability to evaluate any mitigating evidence, such as lack of prior felony convictions. Seven justices also agreed with the proposition that the Eighth Amendment imposes some requirement of proportionality in sentencing.

Justice Scalia announced the opinion of the Court, but was joined only by Chief Justice Rehnquist in his radical assertion that Solem should be overruled because the Eighth Amendment contains no proportionality guarantee. Justice Kennedy’s concurrence, joined by two other justices, upheld Solem but altered its three-part test for determining whether a sentence is proportionate. It made the first prong—whether a punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime— a threshold requirement before a judge may evaluate how a state punishes similar crimes (the second prong) or how other states punish the same crime (third prong). Kennedy’s and Scalia’s opinions read together make clear that a majority of the Court wishes at least to rein in the constitutional guarantee of proportionality in sentencing.

REBECCA L. BARNHART

References and Further Reading

  • Bailey, Pamela L., Harmelin v. Michigan: Is the Eighth Amendment’s Proportionality Guarantee Left an Empty Shell?, Pacific Law Journal 24 (October 1992): 221–73.
  • Friedman, Lawrence M. Law in America: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
  • McGowan, Edward J. Eighth Amendment Proportionality in the Aftermath of Harmelin v. Michigan, New York Law School Journal of Human Rights 10 (Fall 1992): 185–222.
  • Meltzer, Stephen E. Harmelin v. Michigan: Contemporary Morality and Constitutional Objectivity, New England Law Review 27 (Spring 1993): 749–89.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983)

See also Cruel and Unusual Punishment (VIII); Cruel and Unusual Punishment Generally; Fourteenth Amendment; Kennedy, Anthony McLeod; Proportionality Reviews; Rehnquist, William H.; Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962); Scalia, Antonin; Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983); Stare Decisis; Three Strikes/Proportionality

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