465 U.S. 37 (1984), 82-1095, Pulley v. Harris

Docket Nº:No. 82-1095.
Citation:465 U.S. 37, 104 S.Ct. 871, 79 L.Ed.2d 29
Party Name:R. PULLEY, Warden, Petitioner v. Robert Alton HARRIS.
Case Date:January 23, 1984
Court:United States Supreme Court

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465 U.S. 37 (1984)

104 S.Ct. 871, 79 L.Ed.2d 29

R. PULLEY, Warden, Petitioner

v.

Robert Alton HARRIS.

No. 82-1095.

United States Supreme Court.

Jan. 23, 1984

Argued Nov. 7, 1983.

[104 S.Ct. 872] Syllabus[*]

SYLLABUS

Respondent was convicted of a capital crime in a California court and was sentenced to death, and the California Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting the claim that California's capital punishment statute was invalid under the Federal Constitution because it failed to require the California Supreme Court to compare respondent's sentence with sentences imposed in similar capital cases and thereby to determine whether they were proportionate. After habeas corpus relief was denied by the state courts, respondent sought habeas corpus in Federal District Court, again contending that he had been denied the comparative proportionality review assertedly required by the Constitution. The District Court denied the writ, but the Court of Appeals held that comparative proportionality review was constitutionally required.

Held:

1. There is no merit to respondent's contention that the Court of Appeals' judgment should be affirmed solely on the ground that state decisional law entitles him to comparative proportionality review. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, a federal court may not issue a writ of habeas corpus on the basis of a perceived error of state law. In rejecting respondent's demand for proportionality review, the California Supreme Court did not suggest that it was in any way departing from state case-law precedent. Moreover, if respondent's claim is that because of an evolution of state law he would now enjoy the kind of proportionality review that has so far been denied him, the state court should consider the matter, if they are so inclined, free of the constraints of the federal writ of habeas corpus. Pp. 874 - 875.

[104 S.Ct. 873] 2. The Eighth Amendment does not require, as an invariable rule in every case, that a state appellate court, before it affirms a death sentence, compare the sentence in the case before it with the penalties imposed in similar cases if requested to do so by the prisoner. Pp. 876 - 881.

(a) This Court's cases do not require comparative proportionality review by an appellate court in every capital case. The outcome in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (upholding Georgia's statutory scheme which required comparative proportionality review), and Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 96 S.Ct. 2960, 49 L.Ed.2d 913 (upholding Florida's scheme under which the appellate court performed proportionality review despite the absence of a

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statutory requirement), did not hinge on proportionality review. That some schemes providing proportionality review are constitutional does not mean that such review is indispensable. Moreover, Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262, 96 S.Ct. 2950, 49 L.Ed.2d 929, upheld Texas' scheme even though neither the statute nor state case law provided for comparative proportionality review. Pp. 876 - 879.

(b) Assuming that there could be a capital sentencing system so lacking in other checks on arbitrariness that it would not pass constitutional muster without comparative proportionality review, the California statute involved here is not of that sort. Pp. 879 - 881.

692 F.2d 1189 (9th Cir.1982), reversed and remanded.

COUNSEL

Michael D. Wellington, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were John K. Van De Kamp, Attorney General, Daniel J. Kremer, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Steven V. Adler, Deputy Attorney General, and Harley D. Mayfield, Assistant Attorney General.

Anthony G. Amsterdam argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Quin Denvir, Charles M. Sevilla, Ezra Hendon, and Michael J. McCabe.*

* Charles A. Pulaski, Jr., filed a brief for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency as amicus curiae urging affirmance.

Michael D. Wellington, San Diego, Cal., for petitioner.

Anthony G. Amsterdam, New York City, for respondent.

OPINION

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Harris was convicted of a capital crime in a California court and was sentenced to death. 1 Along with

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many [104 S.Ct. 874] other challenges to the conviction and sentence, Harris claimed on appeal that the California capital punishment statute was invalid under the United States Constitution because it failed to require the California Supreme Court to compare Harris's sentence with the sentences imposed in similar capital

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cases and thereby to determine whether they were proportionate. 2 Rejecting the constitutional claims by citation to earlier cases, the California Supreme Court affirmed. People v. Harris, 28 Cal.3d 935, 171 Cal.Rptr. 679, 623 P.2d 240 (1981).3 We denied certiorari. 454 U.S. 882, 102 S.Ct. 365, 70 L.Ed.2d 192 (1981).

Harris then sought a writ of habeas corpus in the state courts. He again complained of the failure to provide him with comparative proportionality review. The writ was denied without opinion, and we denied certiorari. 457 U.S. 1111, 102 S.Ct. 2915, 73 L.Ed.2d 1322 (1982). Harris next sought habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, pressing the claim, among others, that he had been denied the comparative proportionality review assertedly required by the United States Constitution. The District Court denied the writ and refused to stay Harris's execution, but issued a certificate of probable cause. The Court of Appeals, after holding that the proportionality review demanded by Harris was constitutionally required, vacated the judgment of the District Court and ordered that the writ issue relieving Harris of the death sentence unless within 120 days the California Supreme Court undertook to determine whether the penalty imposed

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on Harris is proportionate to sentences imposed for similar crimes. 4 692 F.2d 1189 (9th Cir.1982). We granted the State's petition for certiorari presenting the question whether the proportionality review mandated by the Court of Appeals is required by the United States Constitution. 460 U.S. 1036, 103 S.Ct. 1425, 75 L.Ed.2d 787 (1983).

I

Harris concedes that the Court of Appeals' judgment rested on a federal constitutional ground. He nonetheless contends that we should affirm the judgment, which has the effect of returning the case to the state courts, because state law may entitle him to the comparative proportionality review that he has unsuccessfully demanded. We are unimpressed with the submission. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, a [104 S.Ct. 875] writ of habeas corpus disturbing a state-court judgment may issue only if it is found that a prisoner is in custody "in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2241(c)(3) (1976). A federal court may not issue the writ on the basis of a perceived error of state law.

Even if an error of state law could be sufficiently egregious to amount to a denial of equal protection or of due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, Harris's submission is not persuasive. He relies on People v. Frierson,

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25 Cal.3d 142, 158 Cal.Rptr. 281, 599 P.2d 587 (1979), and People v. Jackson, 28 Cal.3d 264, 168 Cal.Rptr. 603, 618 P.2d 149 (1981), for the proposition that proportionality review should have been extended to him as matter of state law. But since deciding those cases, the California Supreme Court has twice rejected Harris's demand for proportionality review without suggesting that it was in any way departing from precedent. Indeed, on direct review, it indicated that Harris's constitutional claims had been adversely decided in those very cases.

Finally, if Harris's claim is that because of an evolution of state law he would now enjoy the kind of proportionality review that has so far been denied him, that claim, even if accurate,5 would not warrant issuing a writ of habeas corpus. Rather it would appear to be a matter that the state courts should consider, if they are so inclined, free of the constraints of the federal writ. Accordingly, we deem it necessary to reach the constitutional question on which certiorari was granted.

II

At the outset, we should more clearly identify the issue before us. Traditionally, "proportionality" has been used with reference to an abstract evaluation of the appropriateness of

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a sentence for a particular crime. Looking to the gravity of the offense and the severity of the penalty, to sentences imposed for other crimes, and to sentencing practices in other jurisdictions, this Court has occasionally struck down punishments as inherently disproportionate, and therefore cruel and unusual, when imposed for a particular crime or category of crime. See, e.g., Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 103 S.Ct. 3001, 77 L.Ed.2d 637 (1983); Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 102 S.Ct. 3368, 73 L.Ed.2d 1140 (1982); Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 97 S.Ct. 2861, 53 L.Ed.2d 982 (1977). The death penalty is not in all cases a disproportionate penalty in this sense. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 187, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 2931, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976) (opinion of Justices Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS); id., at 226, 96 S.Ct., at 2949 (WHITE, J., concurring).

The proportionality review sought by Harris, required by the Court of Appeals,6 and provided for in numerous state statutes [104 S.Ct. 876]7 is of a different sort. This sort of proportionality review presumes that the death sentence is not disproportionate to the crime in the traditional sense. It purports to inquire instead whether the penalty is nonetheless unacceptable in a particular case because disproportionate to the punishment imposed on others convicted of the same crime. The issue in this case, therefore, is whether the Eighth Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth

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