The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)


What did the Court decide with respect to criminal three-strikes laws?

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld California’s Career Criminal Punishment Act (also known as the “three-strikes” law) sentencing law in Ewing v. California (2003) and Lockyer v. Andrade (2003). Under the California law, if a criminal defendant is convicted of at least three felonies, he or she is subject to the three-strikes law, which carries a penalty of 25 years to life.

The cases involved Gary Ewing, who stole three golf clubs, and Leandro Andrade, who stole $150 worth of videotapes. However, both defendants had multiple criminal convictions in their past, including burglaries, that made them eligible as recidivist (habitual) offenders under the state law. They challenged their sentences and the three-strikes law as a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.

The Court rejected the argument that the defendants’ sentences violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. “The gross disproportionality principle reserves a constitutional violation for only the extraordinary case,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the Court in Andrade. In her Ewing opinion, Justice O’Connor explained that states have the right to pass laws protecting the public from career criminals: “When the California Legislature enacted the three-strikes law, it made a judgment that protecting the public safety requires incapacitating criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime. Nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits California from making that choice.” She also cited statistics showing that a disturbing number of inmates committed repeat offenses upon release from incarceration.


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