Rummel v. Estelle

LOCATION:U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division

DOCKET NO.: 78-6386
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 445 US 263 (1980)
ARGUED: Jan 07, 1980
DECIDED: Mar 18, 1980

Douglas M. Becker – Argued the cause for the respondent
Scott J. Atlas – By appointment of the Court, argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

After being convicted of three felonies over a period of fifteen years, William James Rummel was given a life prison sentence as mandated by a Texas recidivist statute. Rummel’s offenses involved approximately $230, and all of the offenses were nonviolent. Lower courts rejected Rummel’s challenge to the sentence.


Did Rummel’s life sentence under the Texas recidivist law constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment?

Media for Rummel v. Estelle

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 07, 1980 in Rummel v. Estelle

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 18, 1980 in Rummel v. Estelle

William H. Rehnquist:

In Rummel against Estelle, petitioner William James Rummel sought federal habeas corpus relief from his sentence of life imprisonment on the grounds that such a sentence was so grossly disproportionate to his crimes that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

Both the District Court and United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected Rummel’s claim and today we affirm those determinations.

In 1964, Rummel pleaded guilty in the State of Texas to a charge of fraudulent use of a credit card to obtain $80 worth of goods and services.

Under Texas law, such an offense was a felony punishable by two to 10 years in the state penitentiary and Rummel was sentenced to three years.

In 1969, after his release from the penitentiary, Rummel pleaded guilty to passing a forged check in the amount of $28.36.

Like his earlier offense, this crime was a felony under Texas law and was punishable by two to five years in the penitentiary.

In fact, Rummel received a sentence of four years for this offense.

In 1973, after being released from the penitentiary a second time, Rummel was charged with obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses.

Again, the amount involved established this crime as a felony under Texas law which set a potential punishment for that crime alone of two to 10 years or — in prison.

Because Rummel had been convicted of and imprison of for two — imprisoned for two prior felonies, however, the prosecution decided to invoke Texas’ recidivist statute which provided that upon conviction of a third felony, the offender should be imprisoned for life subject only to the State’s judgment whether to release him on parole.

Rummel was in fact convicted of the charge defense and was sentenced to serve such a term of life imprisonment.

In holding that the State of Texas could consistent with the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments imposed a life sentence upon a person in Rummel’s position.

We rely on a number of factors set forth in an opinion filed in detail in the Court today.

While we recognize that only two other States, Washington and West Virginia would have required a life sentence in a case like Rummel’s, many other states have recidivist statutes that differ from those in Texas, Washington and West Virginia only in subtle matters of degree.

Thus the number of states would have allowed a judge or jury to impose the sentence upon Rummel on no discretion.

Other states would have required a life sentence if one of Rummel’s crimes had involved some degree of violence or if he had committed four rather than three felonies.

Absent genuinely and measurable objective criteria demonstrating that Rummel’s sentence was grossly out of proportion either to his offense or to the sentence he would receive in other states, we do not think the Constitution allows us to hold that the Texas legislature exceeded its authority in deciding that a person with Rummel’s criminal record should be sent to prison for life subject only to the State’s judgment is to when to release him on parole.

Mr .Justice Stewart while joining the opinion of the Court has filed a concurring opinion.

Mr. Justice Powell has filed a dissenting opinion in which Mr. Justice Brennan, Mr. Justice Marshall and Mr. Justice Stevens joined.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Rehnquist.