Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910)

Paul Weems, a disbursing officer of the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation of the U.S. government of the Philippines, received a sentence of fifteen years of hard and painful labor, with chains worn at all times, civil penalties extending beyond his imprisonment, and a fine, for falsifying two entries showing wages paid out to employees. He challenged this sentence, which included loss in perpetuity of the right to hold office and to vote, and to be under surveillance for life, as violating the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment.

The Eighth Amendment’s text forbids the federal government from imposing excessive bail or fines and cruel and unusual punishments. The Supreme Court held that the Philippine statute was both cruel in its excess for the crime of falsification and unusual because not one American jurisdiction punished a crime similarly. Moreover, the Philippine legislature imposed the same penalty for the much greater crime of counterfeiting currency, evidencing an exercise of unrestrained and arbitrary power. It therefore overturned Weems’s conviction.

In historic language, Justice McKenna wrote that the vitality of the Constitution lay in its application to unforeseen events, and that it must speak in terms of how things presently are, not how they were once. Although this expansive view of the Bill of Rights as a living, breathing document was not fundamental to the Weems ruling, McKenna’s language bolstered such future claims as a constitutional right to privacy and challenges to existing capital punishment jurisprudence.

REBECCA L. BARNHART

References and Further Reading

  • Granucci, Anthony F., Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishments Inflicted: The Original Meaning, California Law Review 57 (1969): 839–65.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I., and Paul Finkelman, eds. Documents of American Constitutional and Legal History: From the Age of Industrialization to the Present, Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

See also Bill of Rights: Structure; Capital Punishment; Capital Punishment: Proportionality; Capital Punishment Held Not Cruel and Unusual Punishment under Certain Guidelines; Capital Punishment: Eighth Amendment Limits; Cruel and Unusual Punishment (VIII); Cruel and Unusual Punishment (Generally)

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