Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—September 7

2000—Nearly two years after Florida voters vote, 73% to 27%, to amend the state constitution to require that Florida’s ban on “cruel or unusual punishment” comport with U.S. Supreme Court decisions construing the Eighth Amendment, the Florida supreme court (in Armstrong v. Harris) rules, by a 4-to-3 vote, that the ballot title and summary for the amendment were defective and that the amendment is therefore invalid.

Using mixed metaphors in lieu of reasoning, the majority opinion asserts that the amendment was “flying under false colors” and “hiding the ball.” You see, a portion of the ballot title (“United States Supreme Court interpretation of cruel and unusual punishment”) and a sentence in the summary (“Requires construction of the prohibition against cruel and/or unusual punishment to conform to United States Supreme Court interpretation of the Eighth Amendment”) “imply that the amendment will promote the rights of Florida citizens through the rulings of the United States Supreme Court,” but the amendment “effectively strikes the state Clause from the constitutional scheme.” (Huh?? The ballot title and summary provide a far more accurate description of the amendment than the majority does.) And, the majority continues, the ballot summary supposedly failed to “mention[]—or even hint[] at” the fact that the amendment would apply to “all criminal punishments, not just the death penalty.” (Gee, isn’t that exactly what the general language of the summary sentence quoted above means?)

Ed Whelan — Ed Whelan is a leading commentator on nominations to the Supreme Court and the lower courts and on issues of constitutional law.

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