Sumner v. Nevada Department of Prisons

RESPONDENT: Nevada Department of Prisons
LOCATION: Florida Department of Labor

DOCKET NO.: 86-246
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 483 US 66 (1987)
ARGUED: Apr 20, 1987
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1987

D. Brian McKay - on behalf of the Petitioners
M. Daniel Markoff - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Sumner v. Nevada Department of Prisons

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 20, 1987 in Sumner v. Nevada Department of Prisons

William H. Rehnquist:

We will hear arguments next in No. 86-246, George Sumner, et al., against Raymond Wallace Shuman.

General McKay, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

D. Brian McKay:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

The State of Nevada is here today on a writ of certiorari to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

That Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held a Nevada statute, which provided for the mandatory imposition of a death penalty under certain circumstances, unconstitutional.

That holding of the Ninth Circuit was contrary to a holding of the highest court in Nevada, the Nevada Supreme Court, which addressed the same question, and held it to be constitutional under both the U.S. Constitution, and the Nevada constitution.

Which brings us here this morning to the issue, to the question that is presented for this Court's determination this morning.

Which is: Did the imposition of a mandatory death penalty on an inmate, convicted of premeditated murder while serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, imposed for an earlier, unrelated first degree... first degree murder conviction, constitute a cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

The State of Nevada submits that, no, it did not.

The imposition of a mandatory death sentence in this case did not violate the Eighth Amendment, or did not violate any other provisions of the United States Constitution; and that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision was incorrect for the following reasons.

First, the Nevada statute is consistent... was consistent... with the basic tenets, the basic holdings of the Eighth Amendment, that in death penalty cases there be an individualized consideration of the character, in this case of the inmate, his record, and the circumstances of the latest murder.

Secondly, Nevada submits that its statute, as drawn at that time, narrowly defined the class of persons who were eligible for imposition of a mandatory death penalty.

Only the most incorrigible of people were subject to this ultimate sanction: those who are serving a life term, a life sentence, without the possibility of parole who then commit another first degree murder and are convicted of that.

There's been a societal decision to remove these people forever from free society.

Their criminal behavior is so unacceptable that there has been a determination that rehabilitation in these instances is simply not possible.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. McKay, does any State presently have such a law in effect?

D. Brian McKay:

Your Honor, there are no mandatory death penalties currently on the books today.

I believe all of the States reacted to this Court's decision in Woodson and Roberts.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Do you... you think that there could, in theory, be some extenuating circumstances in one of these cases, for example, when the penalty... when the facts show a felony murder situation, for example, where the individual found guilty of murder did not actually do the killing?

D. Brian McKay:

Well, Your Honor, if we're talking about the predicate offense that created the life sentence in the first place--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

No, I'm talking about the murder for which the defendant is being tried after he's previously been put in prison for life.

D. Brian McKay:

--Well, first of all, under the Nevada statute and under the facts of this case, that's not what occurred.

But if it is a felony murder that occurs within the prison walls during his incarceration, I don't think that would make any difference.

I don't think that's an extenuating circumstance.

This individual... any person who fits within this category... has already been placed within a very narrowly defined category of eligibility.

So we believe that--

John Paul Stevens:

General McKay, you say a narrowly defined category.

But the statute, when it was enacted, didn't limit the category to inmate murderers, did it?

That was one of four or five different subcategories, and as I remember the statute, it says at the end of it, anybody who commits any of these crimes, there will be a mandatory death penalty.

D. Brian McKay:

--Yes, Your honor.