Through the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress establishes the federal judicial system. One of its provisions states that whenever an arrest occurs in a criminal case, bail shall be available, except if the crime is punishable by death. In those cases, bail may be available, if a judge decides that it is appropriate under the circumstances.
When New York State allows the use of the newly invented electric chair for executions, the U.S. Supreme Court, in In re Kemmler, rules that it is constitutional. Only if the chosen method of execution involves “torture or a lingering death” does it violate the Eighth Amendment.
An American officer in the government of the Philippines (then a U.S. territory) is found guilty of falsifying an official document and is sentenced to fifteen years in prison, hard labor, lifetime surveillance, and the loss of his civil rights. In Weems v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that this sentence amounts to “cruel and unusual” punishment because its length and harshness are out of proportion to the crime committed.
A person is injured in an automobile accident in Massachusetts and brings suit against the other driver for negligence. At a jury trial he is awarded $500. Disappointed with that amount, he asks for a new trial on the grounds that the verdict was inadequate. The trial judge agrees to order a new trial, unless the other driver will consent to an increase in the damages to $1,500. When the second driver agrees, the judge denies another trial. The injured party then appeals. In the case of Dimick v. Schiedt (1935), the Supreme Court holds that, under the Seventh Amendment and the common law, the trial court lacked the power to make a new trial conditional on the consent of the defendant to an increase in the payment for damages.
In Galloway v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that federal judges can reject the verdict of the jury and direct that another verdict be entered (known as a “directed verdict”) if the judge concludes that there is insufficient evidence to support the jury’s decision. The minority angrily dissent from this ruling, arguing that it erodes a major portion of the Seventh Amendment’s guarantee of a jury verdict.
The U.S. Supreme Court decides three cases known as a group by the name of Furman v. Georgia, finding that Georgia’s death penalty statute, which gives juries complete discretion in sentencing, violates the Eighth Amendment, arguing that death penalties had been rendered in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner. This ends Georgia’s death penalty and those in forty other states. Thirty-five states draft new death penalty laws to meet the Supreme Court’s concerns. Some create sentencing guidelines for judges and juries. Some create a specific list of crimes for which the death penalty is mandated, and others draft a list of “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors to help judges and juries decide the appropriateness of the penalty in each case.
In three cases known together as Gregg v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that death penalty laws are constitutional when they include limitations on jury discretion, such as sentencing guidelines, “bifurcated” trials (meaning that the guilt versus innocence and sentencing phases of the trial are held separately), and a process for immediate appeal of a sentence of death. The ruling upholds many of the newly passed state death penalty laws and permits executions to resume.
In Ingraham v. Wright, the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to find that the Eighth Amendment bars punishment of schoolchildren by “paddling.” Based on the amendment’s history and its language, the Court concludes that the amendment applies only to punishment of criminal offenses, not civil offenses such as breaking school rules.
Arkansas has a practice of placing prisoners in isolation cells for thirty-day periods as punishment for breaking prison rules. In Hutto v. Finney, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is “cruel and unusual” punishment. The Court bases its ruling not on the length of time that prisoners are isolated, but on the overall conditions in the prisons.
Concerned about an increase in crime, Congress passes the Bail Reform Act of 1984, which for the first time allows suspects to be detained solely on an appearance of dangerousness. In United States v. Salerno, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Bail Reform Act of 1984, finding that it does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “excessive” bail. The Court rejects the defendant’s argument that the only consideration in setting bail should be figuring out how much money will be enough to prevent a defendant from fleeing before trial. Instead, the Court finds that protection of the public also can be a basis for determining the level of bail, or even for denying bail entirely.
When a local television station owner falls behind in payments to broadcast such programs as “Who’s the Boss?” and “T.J. Hooker,” Columbia Pictures ends its agreement with him. The station owner continues to show the programs, and Columbia sues for copyright infringement. Columbia wins this case and seeks payment for damages. The judge denies the station owner’s request for a jury trial and conducts a bench trial (a trial heard by a judge without a jury). Columbia is awarded the damages it seeks. The station owner appeals, and in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc. (1998), the Supreme Court rules that the station owner is guaranteed the right to a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in Roper v. Simmons, strikes down state death penalty laws for those seventeen and younger as “cruel and unusual” punishment. The majority cites changing public opinion and notes that the United States stands “alone in a world that has turned its face against the juvenile death penalty.” The decision will result in a new sentence for Christopher Simmons and likely new sentences for seventy-two juvenile offenders on state death rows at the time of the ruling.