217 U.S. 349 (1910), argued 30 Nov.-1 Dec. 1909, decided 2 May 1910 by vote of 4 to 2; McKenna for the Court, White in dissent, Lurton and Moody not participating, Brewer's seat vacant. American control of the Philippines gave the Court a rare opportunity to define the protections the Bill of Rights afforded individuals. This was so because the Philippine Bill of Rights contained much of the wording of its American model.
Under Philippine law, an American disbursing officer was convicted of falsifying official documents. He was sentenced to a heavy fine and to fifteen years of hard labor while in chains. Confronted with this graphic example of Philippine justice, the Court seized on an argument first made in the defendant's brief—that the punishment was cruel and unusual. Realizing that any interpretation of the Philippine protection against such punishment would also interpret the Eighth Amendment to the American Constitution, the majority did not flinch. What was cruel and unusual, Justice Joseph McKenna said, should be determined by current sensibilities and not fixed by “impotent and lifeless formulas” (p. 373). Because the penalty was disproportionate when compared to that levied for more serious crimes, the Court ordered Weems freed because the Philippine law, which prescribed the harsh penalties, violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Edward White, joined by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, protested against judicial interference with the legislative function and against the expansive reading of constitutional protections.
John E. Semonche