Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958)

The constitutionality of a particular punishment is determined, in part, by whether it comports with the ‘‘evolving standards of decency.’’ This concept, which is most commonly used today in death penalty cases, was first enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Trop v. Dulles.

After deserting his military unit for twenty-four hours and voluntarily returning, John Foster Dulles was convicted by military court martial of desertion from the U.S. Army during a time of war and sentenced to three years’ hard labor, forfeiture of all pay, and a dishonorable discharge. In addition to the court martial sentence, Dulles was also stripped of his U.S. citizenship pursuant to a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). In Trop v. Dulles the Supreme Court considered the scope of the ‘‘cruel and unusual’’ clause and determined that it is not static, but ‘‘must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’’ Pursuant to this analysis, the Court held that the expatriation provision of the INA constitutes ‘‘cruel and unusual’’ punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment because it involves the ‘‘total destruction of the individual’s status in organized society.’’

The concept of ‘‘evolving standards of decency’’ has become particularly significant in recent years as it has guided the Supreme Court’s decisions in cases finding that the execution of mentally retarded individuals and individuals under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime violates the Eighth Amendment.

JUDITH M. BARGER

References and Further Reading

  • Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).
  • Heffernan, William C., Constitutional Historicism: An Examination of the Eighth Amendment Evolving Standards of Decency Test, American University Law Review 54 (2005): 1355.
  • Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

See also Capital Punishment and Sentencing; Cruel and Unusual Punishment Generally

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