California Dept. of Corrections v. Morales,
514 U.S. 499 (1995)

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No. 93-1462. Argued January 9, 1995-Decided April 25, 1995

Respondent was sentenced to 15 years to life for the 1980 murder of his wife and became eligible for parole in 1990. As required by California law, the Board of Prison Terms (Board) held a hearing in 1989, at which time it found respondent unsuitable for parole for numerous reasons, including the fact that he had committed his crime while on parole for an earlier murder. Respondent would have been entitled to subsequent suitability hearings annually under the law in place when he murdered his wife. The law was amended in 1981, however, to allow the Board to defer subsequent hearings for up to three years for a prisoner convicted of more than one offense involving the taking of a life, if the Board finds that it is not reasonable to expect that parole would be granted at a hearing during the intervening years and states the bases for the finding. Pursuant to this amendment, the Board scheduled respondent's next hearing for 1992. He then filed a federal habeas corpus petition, asserting that as applied to him, the 1981 amendment constituted an ex post facto law barred by the United States Constitution. The District Court denied the petition, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the retrospective law made a parole hearing less accessible to respondent and thus effectively increased his sentence in violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause.

Held: The amendment's application to prisoners who committed their crimes before it was enacted does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause. Pp.504-514.

(a) The amendment did not increase the "punishment" attached to respondent's crime. It left untouched his indeterminate sentence and the substantive formula for securing any reductions to the sentencing range. By introducing the possibility that the Board would not have to hold another parole hearing in the year or two after the initial hearing, the amendment simply altered the method to be followed in fixing a parole release date under identical substantive standards. Lindsey v. Washington, 301 U. S. 397; Miller v. Florida, 482 U. S. 423; and Weaver

(b) Under respondent's expansive view, the Clause would forbid any legislative change that has any conceivable risk of affecting a prisoner's


punishment. In contrast, this Court has long held that the question of what legislative adjustments are of sufficient moment to transgress the constitutional prohibition must be a matter of degree, and has declined to articulate a single "formula" for making this determination. There is no need to do so here, either, since the amendment creates only the most speculative and attenuated possibility of increasing the measure of punishment for covered crimes, and such conjectural effects are insufficient under any threshold that might be established under the Clause. The amendment applies only to those who have taken more than one life, a class of prisoners for whom the likelihood of release on parole is quite remote. In addition, it affects the timing only of subsequent hearings, and does so only when the Board makes specific findings in the first hearing. Moreover, the Board has the authority to tailor the frequency of subsequent hearings. Respondent offers no support for his speculation that prisoners might experience an unanticipated change that is sufficiently monumental to alter their suitability for parole, or that such prisoners might be precluded from receiving a subsequent expedited hearing. Nor is there a reason to think that postponing an expedited hearing would extend any prisoner's actual confinement period. Since a parole release date often comes at least several years after a suitability finding, the Board could consider when a prisoner became "suitable" for parole in setting the actual release date. pp. 508-513.

16 F.3d 1001, reversed.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER, J., joined, post, p. 514.

James Ching, Supervising Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General, George Williamson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Kenneth C. Young, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Joan W Cavanagh, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, and G. Lewis Chartrand, Jr.

Full Text of Opinion

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