Nishi Kumar


Cruel, Unusual, and Completely Backwards

Nishi Kumar

An Argument for Retroactive Application of the Eighth Amendment

In 2012, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision substantially altering the long-held view that “death was different” from other punishments under the Eighth Amendment. In Miller v. Alabama, the majority held that defendants who were under eighteen at the time of their crimes were categorically less culpable than adult offenders, and were constitutionally entitled to individualized hearings before being sentenced to life without parole. Because the majority opinion did not discuss whether the new rule was retroactive, Miller raises a question rarely raised throughout our country’s judicial history: Once a punishment is found unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, may the states continue to inflict it on those whose sentences were final at the time? This Note posits the idea that our current retroactivity framework, as articulated, does not always lead courts to the correct answer when considering this question, and that an articulated presumption of retroactivity is necessary to ensure Eighth Amendment protections in the context of both capital and noncapital sentences. Part I provides an overview of retroactivity, and then discusses the opinions in Miller. Part II explores the evolution of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, with special attention to how the retroactivity question has been answered in the affirmative through history, and then reports the current divide in the state courts and federal circuit courts regarding Miller‘s retroactive availability. Part III explains that the reason we have had presumptive retroactivity, and should continue to do so, in the Eighth Amendment context is because the state interests driving the retroactivity doctrine are diminished and ultimately irreconcilable with the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.