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U.S. Supreme Court

Connecticut Bd. of Pardons v. Dumschat, 452 U.S. 458 (1981)

Connecticut Bd. of Pardons v. Dumschat

No. 79-1997

Argued February 24, 1981

Decided June 17, 1981

452 U.S. 458


After several applications by respondent Dumschat, a life inmate in a Connecticut state prison, for commutation of his life sentence had been rejected by the Connecticut Board of Pardons without explanation, he sued the Board in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Board's failure to provide him with a written statement of reasons for denying commutation violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Relying chiefly on the fact that the Board had granted approximately three-fourths of all applications for commutation of life sentences, the District Court, after allowing other inmates (also respondents) to intervene and certifying the suit as a class action, held that all prisoners serving life sentences in Connecticut state prisons have a constitutionally protected "entitlement" to a statement of reasons why commutation is not granted. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and then, after its judgment had been vacated by this Court and the case had been remanded for reconsideration in light of Greenholtz v. Nebraska Penal Inmates, 442 U. S. 1, held that the overwhelming likelihood that Connecticut life inmates will be pardoned and released before they complete their minimum terms gave them a constitutionally protected liberty interest in pardon proceedings, and that, under Greenholtz, a statement of reasons for denying commutation was constitutionally necessary under the Due Process Clause.

Held: The power vested in the Connecticut Board of Pardons to commute sentences conferred no rights on respondents beyond the right to seek commutation. Pp. 452 U. S. 463-467.

(a) Far from supporting an "entitlement," Greenholtz, which rejected the claim that a constitutional entitlement to release from a valid prison sentence exists independently of a right explicitly conferred by the State, compels the conclusion that an inmate has "no constitutional or inherent right" to commutation of his life sentence. In terms of the Due Process Clause, a Connecticut felon's expectation that a lawfully imposed sentence will be commuted or that he will be pardoned is no

Page 452 U. S. 459

more substantial than an inmate's expectation, for example, that he will not be transferred to another prison; it is simply a unilateral hope. A constitutional entitlement cannot "he created -- as if by estoppel -- merely because a wholly and expressly discretionary state privilege has been granted generally in the past." Leis v. Flynt, 439 U. S. 438, 439 U. S. 444, n. 5. No matter how frequently a particular form of clemency has been granted, the statistical probabilities generate no constitutional protections. Pp. 452 U. S. 463-465.

(b) In contrast to the unique Nebraska parole statute which was applied in Greenholtz and which created a right to parole unless certain findings were made, the mere existence of a power to commute under the Connecticut commutation statute -- which imposes no limit on what procedure is to be followed, what evidence may be considered, or what criteria are to be applied by the Board of Pardons -- and the granting of commutation to many inmates, create no right or "entitlement." Pp. 452 U. S. 466-467.

618 F.2d 216, reversed.

BURGER, C.J.,delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 452 U. S. 467, and WHITE, J., post, p. 452 U. S. 467, filed concurring opinions. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 452 U. S. 468.

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