The Fuller Court (1888–1910)

Criminal Justice

In what decision did the Fuller Court define the meaning of the “Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause” in the Eighth Amendment?

The Fuller Court ruled in Weems v. United States (1910) that Coast Guard officer Paul Weems’s sentence of 15 years in the Philippine courts for falsifying official documents was excessive enough to violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Philippines, then a U.S. territory, had fashioned its Philippine Bill of Rights after the U.S. Bill of Rights and, indeed, included a ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

The Court ruled 4–2 (Justices Lurton and Moody did not participate and Justice Brewer’s replacement had not yet been named) that the sentence was excessive. Justice McKenna noted for the Court that a litany of more serious offenses in the United States provided less severe punishments than what Weems received, including some “degrees of homicide, misprision of treason, inciting rebellion, conspiracy to destroy the government by force … robbery, larceny, and other crimes.”


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