The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment has long been interpreted by scholars and judges to provide very limited protections for criminal defendants. This understanding of the Eighth Amendment claims that the prohibition is operationalized mostly to prevent torturous methods of punishment or halt the isolated use of a punishment practice that has fallen into long-term disuse.
This Article challenges these assumptions. It argues that while this limited view of the Eighth Amendment may be accurate as a historical matter, over the past two decades, the Supreme Court has incrementally broadened the scope of the cruel and unusual punishment clause. The Court’s contemporary Eighth Amendment jurisprudence—with its focus on categorical exemptions and increasingly nuanced measures of determining constitutionally excessive punishments—reflects an overt recognition that the fundamental purpose of the Eighth Amendment is to protect vulnerable citizens uniquely subject to majoritarian retributive excess.
Animating these developments is a conception of constitutional liberty that transcends the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed, 2015’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, reflects a similar trajectory in the Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence. Taken together, these doctrinal developments illustrate a concerted move to insert the Court as the independent arbiter of legislative excesses that undermine the basic right to human dignity by virtue of unnecessarily impinging upon individual liberty. Ultimately, these liberty-driven developments signal new possibilities for the protection of defendant rights in a variety of contemporary contexts, including juvenile life without parole for homicide offenses, life without parole for non-violent drug offenses, the death penalty, certain mandatory minimum sentences, and the prolonged use of solitary confinement.