This is not the first time that our nation's highest tribunal has declined to address the problem and consider all the relevant constitutional issues. However, it is still highly surprising that it would avoid the issue amid both the ongoing national debate over mandatory minimums and the changing political reality of criminal justice reform.
$150 = 50 Years
In November of 1995, an Army veteran named Leandro Andrade walked into a California Kmart store and left with five children's videotapes, which he had not paid for. Fourteen days later, he repeated the performance at another Kmart location, and was charged with shoplifting nine tapes worth, in all, roughly one hundred and fifty-three dollars. The theft of Batman and Casper is not usually worthy of much mention in the important debate over the criminal justice system, and it should never have been a major issue. After all, petty theft is a misdemeanor that usually carries only six months in jail - not two consecutive terms of twenty-five years to life, which is what Andrade got.
But he had two prior convictions on his record, and therefore was a casualty of the "three strikes" laws. These statutes impose mandatory minimum penalties on those already convicted of two felonies, no matter how trivial the third infraction is. Their proponents argue that they effectively deter habitual offenders and increase accountability for crime; but, in reality, they often result in blatantly disproportionate sentences that hinder the goal of eventually reintegrating transgressors into society.
In a later challenge, the Ninth Circuit granted relief to Andrade on the grounds that his sentence was "cruel and unusual punishment," and the Supreme Court subsequently agreed to hear the case. It appeared to be a clear-cut example of inordinate, unrealistic penal practices, and the lower court's decision was almost universally expected to stand. However, the Court chose to reverse, reasoning per Justice O'Connor that because a possibility of parole still existed (in 2046, when Andrade would be eighty-seven years old), the sentence was not "contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law" (28 U.S.C. §2254). By invoking an ordinary statute to avoid addressing a constitutional question, the Court narrowed its own ability to grant relief further, resulting in the untrammeled long-term incarceration of relatively petty offenders across the country.
However, even though the Court may have rejected the Eighth Amendment argument against mandatory sentencing, the Constitution and common-law decisions interpreting it still indicate the illegality of the practice.
Separation of Powers
Despite the ruling in Lockyer v. Andrade, the courts have always recognized that the ability of a judge to tailor the law to the facts of a case is essential to substantive justice. As Justice Holmes famously observed: "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience... and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics" (The Common Law, 1881). Justice Frankfurter seconded this from the bench when he called due process "the least frozen concept of our law -- the least confined to history and the most absorptive of powerful social standards of a progressive society" (Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 20-21 (1956)). Now, though, the legislature encroaches on that judicial function through its ill-considered mandatory minimum laws. Not only does this interfere with the historical procedure of the courts, but it violates the constitutional system of checks and balances.
The 1965 case of United States v. Cox concerned a U.S. Attorney threatened with contempt of court after he refused to sign an indictment, even though he was acting under the direction of then-Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. In a landmark decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the prosecutor was a member of the executive branch, and therefore that the contempt order unlawfully infringed upon the separation of powers (342 F.2d 167). The mandatory minimum laws have a similar effect, forcing judges to impose heavy penalties regardless of the dictates of individualized justice.
As Blackstone once noted in his Commentaries, "In all tyrannical governments the supreme magistracy, or the right both of making and of enforcing the laws, is vested in one and the same man, or one and the same body of men; and wherever these two powers are united together, there can be no public liberty." 1 B.C. 146. In today's system of compulsory inclemency, it appears that this basic tenet has been forgotten.