Court Cites ‘Evolving Standards’ When Death Penalty Imposed

1958

In two cases, the U.S. Supreme Court again tackles the question of when a sentence is so “disproportionate to the crime” as to be “cruel and unusual” punishment. In both cases, the Court makes clear that the meaning of what is “cruel and unusual” will change over time, depending on society’s own attitudes about crime and punishment.

In the 1958 case, Trop v. Dulles, the Court notes that the Eighth Amendment “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." The justices conclude that it is unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” to punish a soldier’s desertion with revoking his citizenship.

Four years later, in Robinson v. California, the Court strikes a California law that makes it illegal to be addicted to drugs. The Court rules that, given that it is now known drug addiction is an illness, it is overly harsh to imprison an individual solely on the basis of addiction. The Court rules the law violates the Eighth Amendment.