Payne v. Tennessee
501 U.S. 808 (1991)

  • During a drug binge, Payne brutally murdered his neighbor and her daughter, and gravely injured her son.
  • The Trial Court convicted Payne of murder and sentenced him to death.
    • During sentencing, the prosecutor introduced ‘victim impact statements’ to show the effect of the murders on the friends and family of the neighbor.
  • Payne appealed the sentence, claiming it was an unconstitutional violation of his 8th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
    • Payne argued that the victim impact statements emotionally influenced the jury to recommend the death penalty.
    • Payne pointed to the US Supreme Court decisions in Booth v. Maryland (482 U.S. 496 (1987)), and South Carolina v. Gather (490 U.S. 805 (1989)), which held that victim impact statements were not admissible during the sentencing phases of capital murder trials.
  • The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the sentence. Payne appealed.
    • The Tennessee Supreme Court found that the victim impact statements “did not create a constitutionally unacceptable risk of an arbitrary imposition of the death penalty.”
  • The US Supreme Court upheld the sentence.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the introduction of victim impact statements was not an unconstitutional violation of the 8th Amendment.
      • That leaves it up to the States to allow or disallow the statements.
    • The Court overruled two of its previous decisions (Booth and Gather), thereby violating stare decisis.
      • The Court found that that stare decisis could be disregarded where fairness to Victim’s rights had priority over the demands of consistency in the common law.
      • The Court found that stare decisis was not an “inexorable command” and that it is the job of the Court to fairly decide what the law is, regardless of what decisions they had made in the past.
        • The Court noted that stare decisis is most important in property and contract rights because reliance interests are involved. However, it is less important for procedural and evidentiary rules.
  • In a dissent it was argued that the argument made in this case was exactly the same as was made in Booth and Gather. There was no new theory of law, it was just that there were new different (and more conservative) Justices on the Supreme Court. The dissent argued that you shouldn’t overrule past precedent unless there is “special justification.”
    • The dissent notes that “special justifications” include:
      • Subsequent changes or development in the law that undermine a decisions rationale.
      • The need to bring a decision into agreement with experience and with facts newly ascertained.
      • A showing that a particular precedent has become a detriment to coherence and consistency in the law.
  • In general stare decisis has less weight in constitutional decisions, because the only way to overrule them is by constitutional Amendment.
    • Decisions that don’t involve constitutional protections can always be overridden by just passing a new law.