U.S. Supreme Court

Stevens Hits Scalia Sentencing Opinion in Little-Noticed Speech


Retired Justice John Paul Stevens had some pointed criticism for his one-time colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, in a little-noticed speech earlier this month.

Speaking at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Stevens took aim at Scalia for his 1991 opinion in Harmelin v. Michigan upholding a mandatory life sentence for possession of 672 grams of cocaine, the National Law Journal reports.

According to Stevens, Scalia said the Eighth Amendment does not require the punishment to fit the crime. “Under his reasoning, since imprisonment is not categorically cruel or unusual, a life sentence for a parking violation would not have violated the Eighth Amendment,” Stevens said in the speech (PDF).

“As a cloistered appellate judge, I have never seen cocaine myself, but I understand that the quantity actually possessed by [the defendant] … could have been carried in a brown paper bag or concealed in a glove compartment,” Stevens said. Under the statute, the defendant would have received the same life sentence if he had been a drug kingpin.

Stevens also criticized Scalia’s historical research used to support his opinion, the story says. “Judges are merely amateur historians,” Stevens said, and their historical interpretations are “often debatable and sometimes simply wrong.”

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