452 U.S. 458 (1981), 79-1997, Connecticut Bd. of Pardons v. Dumschat

Docket Nº:No. 79-1997
Citation:452 U.S. 458, 101 S.Ct. 2460, 69 L.Ed.2d 158
Party Name:Connecticut Bd. of Pardons v. Dumschat
Case Date:June 17, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 458

452 U.S. 458 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 2460, 69 L.Ed.2d 158

Connecticut Bd. of Pardons

v.

Dumschat

No. 79-1997

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 1981

Argued February 24, 1981

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

After several applications by respondent Dumschat, a life inmate in a Connecticut state prison, for commutation of his life sentence had been rejected by the Connecticut Board of Pardons without explanation, he sued the Board in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Board's failure to provide him with a written statement of reasons for denying commutation violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Relying chiefly on the fact that the Board had granted approximately three-fourths of all applications for commutation of life sentences, the District Court, after allowing other inmates (also respondents) to intervene and certifying the suit as a class action, held that all prisoners serving life sentences in Connecticut state prisons have a constitutionally protected "entitlement" to a statement of reasons why commutation is not granted. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and then, after its judgment had been vacated by this Court and the case had been remanded for reconsideration in light of Greenholtz v. Nebraska Penal Inmates, 442 U.S. 1, held that the overwhelming likelihood that Connecticut life inmates will be pardoned and released before they complete their minimum terms gave them a constitutionally protected liberty interest in pardon proceedings, and that, under Greenholtz, a statement of reasons for denying commutation was constitutionally necessary under the Due Process Clause.

Held: The power vested in the Connecticut Board of Pardons to commute sentences conferred no rights on respondents beyond the right to seek commutation. Pp. 463-467.

(a) Far from supporting an "entitlement," Greenholtz, which rejected the claim that a constitutional entitlement to release from a valid prison sentence exists independently of a right explicitly conferred by the State, compels the conclusion that an inmate has "no constitutional or inherent right" to commutation of his life sentence. In terms of the Due Process Clause, a Connecticut felon's expectation that a lawfully imposed sentence will be commuted or that he will be pardoned is no

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more substantial than an inmate's expectation, for example, that he will not be transferred to another prison; it is simply a unilateral hope. A constitutional entitlement cannot "he created -- as if by estoppel -- merely because a wholly and expressly discretionary state privilege has been granted generally in the past." Leis v. Flynt, 439 U.S. 438, 444, n. 5. No matter how frequently a particular form of clemency has been granted, the statistical probabilities generate no constitutional protections. Pp. 463-465.

(b) In contrast to the unique Nebraska parole statute which was applied in Greenholtz and which created a right to parole [101 S.Ct. 2462] unless certain findings were made, the mere existence of a power to commute under the Connecticut commutation statute -- which imposes no limit on what procedure is to be followed, what evidence may be considered, or what criteria are to be applied by the Board of Pardons -- and the granting of commutation to many inmates, create no right or "entitlement." Pp. 466-467.

618 F.2d 216, reversed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 467, and WHITE, J., post, p. 467, filed concurring opinions. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 468.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the fact that the Connecticut Board of Pardons has granted approximately three-fourths of the applications for commutation of life sentences creates a constitutional "liberty interest" or "entitlement" in life-term inmates so as to require that Board to explain its reasons for denial of an application for commutation.

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I

In 1964, respondent Dumschat was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. Under state law, he was not eligible for parole until December, 1983.1 The Connecticut Board of Pardons is empowered to commute the sentences of life inmates by reducing the minimum prison term,2 and such a commutation accelerates eligibility for parole.3 The authority of the Board of Pardons derives from Conn.Gen.Stat. § 18-26 (1981), which provides in pertinent part:

(a) Jurisdiction over the granting of, and the authority to grant, commutations of punishment or releases, conditioned or absolute, in the case of any person convicted of any offense against the state and commutations from the penalty of death shall be vested in the board of pardons.

(b) Said board shall have authority to grant pardons, conditioned or absolute, for any offense against the state at any time after the imposition and before or after the service of any sentence.

Page 461

On several occasions prior to the filing of this suit in February, 1976, Dumschat applied for a commutation of his sentence. The Board rejected each application without explanation. Dumschat then sued the Board under 42 U.S.C.1983, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Board's failure to provide him with a written statement of reasons for denying commutation violated his rights guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

After hearing testimony from officials of the Board of Pardons and the Board of Parole, the District Court concluded (a) that Dumschat had a constitutionally protected liberty entitlement in the pardon process, and (b) that his due process rights had been violated when the Board of Pardons failed to give "a written statement of reasons and facts relied on" in denying commutation. [101 S.Ct. 2463] 432 F.Supp. 1310, 1315 (1977). The court relied chiefly on a showing that "at least 75 percent of all lifers received some favorable action from the pardon board prior to completing their minimum sentences," and that virtually all of the pardoned inmates were promptly paroled.4 Id. at 1314. In response to postjudgment motions, the District Court allowed other life inmates to intervene, certified the suit as a class action, and heard additional evidence.5 Page 462

The court held that all prisoners serving life sentences in Connecticut state prisons have a constitutionally protected expectancy of commutation, and therefore that they have a right to a statement of reasons when commutation is not granted. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 593 F.2d 165 (CA2 1979). A petition for a writ of certiorari was filed, and we vacated and remanded for reconsideration in light of Greenholtz v. Nebraska Penal Inmates, 442 U.S. 1 (1979). 442 U.S. 926 (1979).

On remand, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its original decision, 618 F.2d 216 (CA2 1980), stating:

In marked contrast [to the Nebraska statute considered in Greenholtz], Connecticut's pardons statute contains neither a presumption in favor of pardon nor a list of factors to be considered by the Board of Pardons. Instead, the statute grants the board unfettered discretion in the exercise of its power. The statute offers only the "mere hope" of pardon; it does not create a legitimate expectation of freedom, and therefore does not implicate due process.

Id. at 219 (citation omitted). The Court of Appeals also noted that the District Court's holding that the mere possibility of a pardon creates a constitutionally cognizable liberty interest or entitlement was "no longer tenable" in light of Greenholtz. 618 F.2d at 221; see 442 U.S. at 8-11. However, the Court of Appeals then proceeded to conclude that

[t]he overwhelming likelihood that Connecticut life inmates will be pardoned and released before they complete their minimum terms gives them a constitutionally protected liberty interest in pardon proceedings.

Page 463

618 F.2d at 220. The Court of Appeals also understood our opinion in Greenholtz to hold that, under the Due Process Clause, a brief statement of reasons is "not only constitutionally sufficient, but also constitutionally necessary."6 618 F.2d at 222. On that reading of Greenholtz, the case was remanded to the District Court for a determination of "how many years life inmates must serve before the probability of pardon becomes so significant as to give rise to a protected liberty interest."7

[101 S.Ct. 2464] II

A

A state-created right can, in some circumstances, beget yet other rights to procedures essential to the realization of the parent right. See Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 226 (1976); Wolf v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 557 (1974). Plainly, however, the underlying right must have come into existence before it can trigger due process protection. See, e.g., Leis v. Flynt, 439 U.S. 438, 442-443 (1979).

In Greenholtz, far from spelling out any judicially divined "entitlement," we did no more than apply the unique Nebraska statute. We rejected the claim that a constitutional entitlement to release from a valid prison sentence exists independently

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of a right explicitly conferred by the State. Our language in Greenholtz leaves no room for doubt:

There is no constitutional or inherent right of a convicted person to be conditionally released before the expiration of a valid sentence. The natural desire of an individual to be released is indistinguishable from the initial resistance to being confined. But the conviction, with all its procedural safeguards, has extinguished that liberty right: "[G]iven a valid conviction, the criminal defendant has been constitutionally deprived of his liberty."

442 U.S. at 7 (emphasis supplied; citation omitted). Greenholtz pointedly distinguished...

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