Pieces of Eighth

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Amendment Eight – Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

PORTIA

A pound of that same merchant’s flesh is thine:
The court awards it, and the law doth give it.

SHYLOCK

Most rightful judge!

PORTIA

And you must cut this flesh from off his breast:
The law allows it, and the court awards it.

SHYLOCK

Most learned judge! A sentence! Come, prepare!

PORTIA

Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh:’
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

GRATIANO

O upright judge! Mark, Jew: O learned judge!

SHYLOCK

Is that the law?

PORTIA

Thyself shalt see the act:
For, as thou urgest justice, be assured
Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest.

–Shakespeare, the Merchant of Venice, IV:1 lines 299-316

Such a contract as Shylock and Antonio signed would never pass muster in the courts of the United States, thanks to the Eighth Amendment. But what the State cannot permit others to do, it routinely does itself – and not without cause, either.

Has our hypothetical corrupt politician finally got us where he wants us?

Well, the quote I used above was kind of a spoiler. The answer is no – not even if we are guilty of a crime can the State simply do away with us, or do with us according to personal cruelty or caprice. As the saying goes, the punishment must fit the crime. A dispute over whether a certain punishment is inherently unreasonable must, by definition, rely on the concept that such punishments are an affront against the rights of a person, even a criminal, as described herein. Senator Shylock is doomed to disappointment, and though we do not call his own goods forfeit to the state for such things, we should perhaps be more diligent in kicking him out of office to seek honest employment.

Is all well that ends well? Maybe, but we haven’t quite gotten to the end of our story.

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