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

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Pulley v. Harris

No. 82-1095

Argued November 7, 1983

Decided January 23, 1984

465 U.S. 37


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.


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 courts should consider the matter, if they are so inclined, free of the constraints of the federal writ of habeas corpus. Pp. 465 U. S. 41-42.

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. 465 U. S. 44-54.

(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 (upholding Georgia's statutory scheme which required comparative proportionality review), and Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U. S. 242 (upholding Florida's scheme under which the appellate court performed proportionality review despite the absence of a

Page 465 U. S. 38

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, upheld Texas' scheme even though neither the statute nor state case law provided for comparative proportionality review. Pp. 465 U. S. 44-51.

(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. 465 U. S. 51-54.

692 F.2d 1189, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in all but Part III of which STEVENS, J., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 465 U. S. 54. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 465 U. S. 59.

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