In several of our recent blog posts, we've gone over a recent case that came out of the same federal appeals court that handles cases in Maine – United States v. Rivera-Ruperto. This case is hugely important for Mainers because it says a lot about the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” and binds the federal courts in Maine. This case is an official statement about how hard it is to challenge extremely long prison sentences in Maine under the Eighth Amendment: It stated that 160 years in jail for providing armed security in a half-dozen drug deals was not “cruel and unusual.”
The decision in Rivera-Ruperto, however, is in large part based on a concept that has no place in any Eighth Amendment case: Legislative deference.
The Eighth Amendment and the Bill of Rights
When the Founders created the Constitution of the United States back in the 1780s, there were two groups of people. One group wanted to create a strong federal government. The other wanted to reserve lots of rights for the people, thereby creating a weak federal government. The Bill of Rights is how these two groups compromised: The rights set out in the Bill of Rights were guaranteed to never be infringed upon by the federal government. This included Congress.
Among the rights in the Bill of Rights was the Eighth Amendment.
Legislative Deference and the Eighth Amendment
In the years since, numerous cases have come up that have dealt with the Eighth Amendment. Some of them have dealt with the part about punishments that are “cruel and unusual,” and some of these have dealt with prison sentences – which are made by Congress – that seem excessively harsh.
Out of these cases, courts have come up with factors to consider when determining if a prison sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. These factors, however, are not considered on a level playing field. Instead, courts have decided to give a lot of deference to the legislature – to Congress – and what they have determined is a proper sentence.
This is the idea that has no place in a court's decision about the Eighth Amendment, or any other Amendment enshrined in the Bill of Rights: Legislative deference. The whole point of the Bill of Rights was to prevent Congress from doing certain things. To then grant such extreme deference to that very same Congress in its sentencing decisions when it comes to the Eighth Amendment is likely the least responsible thing that a court can do.
Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
A criminal case is not over when the jury returns its verdict. The sentencing part of a trial is often the most important part of the whole process. Having a solid criminal defense attorney at your side for the sentencing portion of your case can make a huge difference, and can ensure that your Constitutionally guaranteed rights are protected.