“The Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the United States” (“The Constitution”, para.2). It exists to serve the citizens of the United States. Although there have been many amendments added to the Constitution since the beginning of its existence, there was a core of 10 amendments that were ratified by 1791. These are referred to as the Bill of Rights. One of these important American rights is known as the Eighth Amendment. This particular amendment is important when addressing excessive bail, fines, and unfair punishments, and the Courts often refer to this amendment when trying cases. Through exploration of how the Eight Amendment came to be part of the Constitution and by looking at a specific case that challenges the interpretation of this amendment, one can gain a better understanding of this piece of the Constitution.
Along with the other nine amendments, the Eighth Amendment became part of what is known as the Bill of Rights in 1791. Many American people and states were concerned when the Constitution was initially suggested because it did not appear to protect the rights of the people (“The Bill of Rights”, para.2). That is why it was important to have this Bill of Rights included. It was put there to make sure the people’s rights were preserved. The 10 amendments included in the Bill of Rights are said to have been “influenced by the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Virginia Declaration of Rights by George Mason” (“The Bill of Rights: History”, para.1). The English Bill of Rights protected the rights of English citizens from the King. Just as with the English version, the American version also was put in place to protect the rights of American citizens. According to Hall, Finkelman, and Ely, Jr. (2005), the Bill of Rights are:
“…a somewhat more concise catalogue of individual liberties than comparable declarations of rights in most state constitutions of the period. Most were framed as negative right – what the congress could not do, for example – but some, such as the right to counsel in the Sixth Amendment, were framed as positive rights.” (p.125)
The Eighth Amendment falls under this category of what Congress cannot do. It states that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” (“Amendments”, para.8). Basically, this amendment is there to ensure that the crime matches the punishment. The history behind this particular amendment goes back to England before it was added to the United States Bill of Rights. In 1689, the Habeas Corpus Act was enacted in England. This allowed for people the right to be released from prison. Judges did not like this and reacted by setting bail so high that it could never be met. The Parliament responded by including the excessive bail language in its Bill of Rights of 1689 and therefore made it unlawful for bail to be set at an unreasonable level (“Eighth Amendment”, para.2). William Blackstone commented on excessive fines in his commentary, saying that “no man shall have a larger amercement inposed upon him, than his circumstances or personal estate will bear: saving to the landholder his contenement, or land; to the trader his merchandize; and to the countryman his wainage, or team and instruments of husbandry” (“William Blackstone, Commentaries”, para.8). He was referring to the law that was put into place in England and from which the American Bill of Rights got its language for the Eighth Amendment. The “cruel and unusual punishment” language was also added first to the English Bill of Rights to ensure the protection of the citizens from the King. “Blackstone believed that the severe punishments imposed in the time of James II by the Court of the King’s Bench accounted for the provision in the English Bill of Rights that the Eighth Amendment copied” (Levy, n.d., p.234).
Different people can interpret the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, in different ways. That is why when reviewing cases, the Justices will refer to other cases that have previously been tried for guidance. Still, some cases challenge the interpretation of the amendments. For example, there are many cases where the petitioner states that he or she has experienced cruel and unusual punishments that are in violation of the Eighth Amendment. One such case is that of Wilson v. Seiter that was argued in 1991. The petitioner, Pearly Wilson, was a felon who was being held at the Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio. He alleged “a number of the conditions of his confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments” (Cornell University, “Wilson v. Seiter”, para.3). These cruel conditions included things such as “overcrowding, excessive noise, insufficient locker storage space, inadequate heating and cooling, improper ventilation, unclean and inadequate restrooms, unsanitary dining facilities and food preparation, and housing with mentally and physically ill inmates” (Cornell University, “Wilson v. Seiter”, para.3). Wilson was suing two of the state prison officials. Wilson indicated that the prison officials had shown “deliberate indifference” to his complaints and that they allowed these things to continue. According to the US Supreme Court Media, Oyez, the District court ruled against Wilson, saying that he had to show that the prison officials had to be in a “culpable state of mind”. This means that they would have to be in a guilty or blame-worthy state of mind. Yet how is someone able to determine whether someone was truly in this state of mind? In this case, the Court referred to previous cases Francis v. Resweber and Estelle v. Gamble to “establish that cruel and unusual punishment required the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain’” (Oyez, “Wilson v. Seiter”, para.3). In Estelle v. Gamble they looked at events that occurred during the imprisonment, but that was not actually part of the sentencing. They concluded that the petitioner was not refused sufficient medical attention because the doctors were in a culpable state of mind. They were not showing deliberate indifference to his medical needs (Cornell University, “Wilson v. Seiter”, para.6). After looking at that case they looked at Rhodes v. Chapman where they made note that “the Constitution…does not mandate comfortable prisons” (para.10). There is also the argument that there is not enough funding and money to help eliminate any inhumane conditions that occur within prisons. These things are simply out of the control of the prison officials. The official ruling of the Supreme Court was five votes for Seiter and four votes against. In the notes it said that the prison officials would have had to show intentional cruelty to Wilson, which would have resulted in a culpable state of mind. Yet, they did make note that the Court of Appeals should have considered the “‘deliberate indifference’ to a prisoner’s conditions” (Oyez, “Wilson v. Seiter”, para.3), which could be seen as abusive treatment. This case shows that the Justices of the Supreme Court were almost split on their decision. It can be hard to determine what qualifies as a cruel punishment and what does not. It all depends on how one interprets the amendment.
Even thought these amendments, such as the Eighth Amendment, have some challenges when it comes to interpretation, the fact remains that they were put in place to protect the American people and their rights. The Eighth Amendment was ratified back in 1791 along with the other nine amendments, and together they make up the Bill of Rights. Language from the English Bill of Rights was used in producing the United States version. Specific cases, such as Wilson v. Seiter, show how interpretation of the Eighth Amendment can vary. Yet it also shows how the American people have the freedom to exercise their rights by having their voices heard.
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