Whether a state statute denies equal protection of the laws by
reason of classification depends upon whether there is a basis for
There is a proper basis for classification of punishment for
crimes between convicts serving life terms in the state prison and
convicts serving lesser terms.
Section 246 of the Penal Code of California inflicting the death
penalty for assaults with intent to kill committed by life term
convicts in the state prison is not unconstitutional under the
equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because its
provisions are not applicable to convicts serving lesser terms.
153 Cal. 59 affirmed.
The facts, which involve the constitutionality under the equal
protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of § 246 of the Penal
Code of the California, are stated in the opinion.
Page 222 U. S. 30
Memorandum opinion, by direction of the court, by MR. JUSTICE
Section 246 of the Penal Code of the State of California
provides as follows:
"Every person undergoing a life sentence in a state prison of
this state who, with malice aforethought, commits an assault upon
the person of another with a deadly weapon or instrument or by any
means or force likely to produce great bodily injury is punishable
with death. "
Page 222 U. S. 31
Plaintiff in error was indicted under this section, tried, found
guilty, and the death penalty imposed. To the judgment of the
supreme court of the state affirming the sentence against him, he
prosecutes this writ of error and urges as ground thereof that §
246 is repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of
the United States in that it denies to him the equal protection of
the laws because it provides an exceptional punishment for life
The supreme court sustained the law on the ground that there was
a proper basis for classification between convicts serving life
sentences in the state prison, as defendant was when he committed
the crime for which he was indicted and found guilty, and convicts
serving lesser terms.
It is elementary that the contention is to be tested by
considering whether there is a basis for the classification made by
the statute. Applying that test, we see no error in the ruling. As
said by Mr. Justice Henshaw, delivering the opinion of the court,
"The classification of the statute in question is not arbitrary,
but is based upon valid reasons and distinctions." And, pointing
out the distinction between life prisoners and other convicts, he
"the 'life termers,' as has been said, while within the prison
walls, constitute a class by themselves -- a class recognized as
such by penologists the world over. Their situation is legally
different. Their civic death is perpetual."
153 Cal. 62. Manifestly there could be no extension of the term
of imprisonment as a punishment for crimes they might commit, and
whatever other punishment should be imposed was for the legislature
to determine. The power of classification which the lawmaking power
possesses has been illustrated by many cases, which need not be
cited. They demonstrate that the Legislature of California did not
transcend its power in the enactment of § 246.