The 'Cruel and Unusual' Legacy of the Star Chamber

Journal of American Constitutional History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2023)

San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 23-004

79 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2023 Last revised: 29 Aug 2023

See all articles by Donald A. Dripps

Donald A. Dripps

University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: February 8, 2023

Abstract

Supreme Court justices have read the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause as prohibiting torturous methods of punishment, prohibiting grossly disproportionate punishments, and/or prohibiting arbitrary discretion over the infliction of the death penalty.
All three accounts face familiar and formidable historical challenges. There is general agreement that the founders took the clause from Article 10 of the English Bill of Rights, and that Article 10 repudiated the horrific sentence passed on Titus Oates by the infamous Judge Jeffreys in 1685. Each of the major interpretations fails to account for important pieces of the Oates puzzle.

The methods of punishment inflicted on Oates were two days of horrific flogging, recurring stands in the pillory, and life imprisonment. These methods were not capital, were not unusual in 1685, and were all included in the Crimes Act passed by the First Congress.
Oates’s sentence was not, by contemporary standards, disproportionate. His perjuries caused the executions of numerous innocents, quite possibly by torture. By the standards of the times, he deserved hanging.

The Eighth Amendment, however, responded to anti-federalist fears that Congress might adopt torturous methods of capital punishment. Prevailing theories fail to account for the disconnect between what the English provision did and what the American provision meant to do.

This Article argues that prevailing accounts are breathtakingly incomplete. The full story begins not with the flogging of Titus Oates in 1685, but with the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641. Sentencing Oates, Jeffreys claimed for King's Bench all the Star Chamber's lawless power to determine punishments less than capital. The English Article 10 repudiated this attempt to resurrect the Star Chamber. Then Congress, responding to anti-federalist fears about Congress adopting European-style executions by torture, freighted the "cruel and unusual" language with two additional meanings. The clause now applied to capital, as well as noncapital, penalties. It now also restricted legislative as well as judicial discretion. Synthesizing the English original and the later concerns of the American founders, the Eighth Amendment forbids lawless discretion in both capital and noncapital cases, and torturous methods of punishment. Proportionality was left to the legislature, subject to the powerful check provided by a constitutional requirement of even-handed enforcement.

At a time when the Court is reconsidering longstanding precedents from originalist premises, this account is not only a major advance in the academic literature. It may also be, practically speaking, a matter of life and death.

Suggested Citation

Dripps, Donald A., The 'Cruel and Unusual' Legacy of the Star Chamber (February 8, 2023). Journal of American Constitutional History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2023), San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 23-004, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4352187

Donald A. Dripps (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States

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