Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126, 15 (2003)

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Thomas, J., concurring in judgment

onment and the denial of a constitutional right to marry.* The only provision of the Constitution that speaks to the scope of criminal punishment is the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment, and Turner cited neither that Clause nor the Court's precedents interpreting it. Prisoners challenging their sentences must, absent an unconstitutional procedural defect, rely solely on the Eighth Amendment.

The proper inquiry, therefore, is whether a sentence validly deprives the prisoner of a constitutional right enjoyed by ordinary, law-abiding persons. Whether a sentence encompasses the extinction of a constitutional right enjoyed by free persons turns on state law, for it is a State's prerogative to determine how it will punish violations of its law, and this Court awards great deference to such determinations. See, e. g., Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U. S. 808, 824 (1991) ("Under our constitutional system, the primary responsibility for defining crimes against state law [and] fixing punishments for the commission of these crimes . . . rests with the States"); see also Ewing v. California, 538 U. S. 11, 24 (2003) (opinion of O'Connor, J.) ("[O]ur tradition of deferring to state legislatures in making and implementing such important [sentencing] policy decisions is longstanding").

Turner is therefore best thought of as implicitly deciding that the marriage restriction was not within the scope of the State's lawfully imposed sentence and that, therefore, the regulation worked a deprivation of a constitutional right without sufficient process. Yet, when the resolution of a federal constitutional issue may be rendered irrelevant by

*A prisoner's sentence is the punishment imposed pursuant to state law. Sentencing a criminal to a term of imprisonment may, under state law, carry with it the implied delegation to prison officials to discipline and otherwise supervise the criminal while he is incarcerated. Thus, restrictions imposed by prison officials may also be a part of the sentence, provided that those officials are not acting ultra vires with respect to the discretion given them, by implication, in the sentence.

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