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Trop v. Dulles

Court Rules That Denaturalization Is Cruel And Unusual Punishment

Trop was decided the same day as another denaturalization case, Perez v. Brownell, in which the Court voted 5-4 in favor of supporting Congress's power to strip American citizenship from someone who had voted in a foreign election. Chief Justice Warren had dissented in Perez, arguing that Congress had no power to deprive an American of his citizenship without his consent. In Trop, Warren announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion which was joined by only three other members. Warren's opinion reflected his view that however reprehensible wartime desertion might be, it did not signify allegiance to a foreign state. To deprive Trop of his citizenship was to impose upon him cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The prohibition was just as applicable here as in cases involving excessive physical punishment:

[T]he words of the Amendment are not precise, and . . . their scope is not static. The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society . . . We believe . . . that the use of denaturalization as a punishment is barred by the Eighth Amendment. There may be no physical mistreatment, no primitive torture. There is instead the total destruction of the individual's status in an organized society.

Although in the end the Court voted to overturn the Immigration and Nationalization Act, it did so as a plurality. Justice Brennan voted with the majority, but he wrote a separate opinion in which he detailed his own reasons for doing so. While Justice Brennan did not agree that denaturalization amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, he concluded that it was not an appropriate exercise of Congress's war powers to punish wartime desertion with expatriation.

In Afroyim v. Rusk (1967), the Court overturned Perez, using Warren's argument in Trop as its rationale. This line of reasoning received its greatest attention, however, during the great debate among the justices over the death penalty. In Furman v. Georgia (1972), the Court for the first time struck down capital punishment as cruel and unusual punishment. Then four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court declared that capital punishment was not per se cruel and unusual, that "evolving standards of decency" did not hold that a death sentence was always unconstitutional. Under certain tightly controlled circumstances, the Court concluded, states could impose the death sentence for crimes so heinous that they offended civilized society.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Trop v. Dulles - Significance, Court Rules That Denaturalization Is Cruel And Unusual Punishment, Rescinding American Citizenship