Posted by Curt on 29 June, 2015 at 9:07 pm. 3 comments already!


Justice Scalia:

I join the opinion of the Court, and write to respond to Justice Breyer’s plea for judicial abolition of the death penalty.

Welcome to Groundhog Day. The scene is familiar: Petitioners, sentenced to die for the crimes they committed (including, in the case of one petitioner since put to death, raping and murdering an 11–month-old baby), come before this Court asking us to nullify their sentences as “cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment. They rely on this provision because it is the only provision they can rely on. They were charged by a sovereign State with murder. They were afforded counsel and tried before a jury of their peers—tried twice, once to determine whether they were guilty and once to determine whether death was the appropriate sentence. They were duly convicted and sentenced. They were granted the right to appeal and to seek postconviction relief, first in state and then in federal court. And now, acknowledging that their convictions are unassailable, they ask us for clemency, as though clemency were ours to give.

The response is also familiar: A vocal minority of the Court, waving over their heads a ream of the most recent abolitionist studies (a superabundant genre) as though they have discovered the lost folios of Shakespeare, insist that now, at long last, the death penalty must be abolished for good. Mind you, not once in the history of the American Republic has this Court ever suggested the death penalty is categorically impermissible. The reason is obvious: It is impossible to hold unconstitutional that which the Constitution explicitly contemplates. The Fifth Amendment provides that “[n]o person shall be held to answer for a capital . . . crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury,” and that no person shall be “deprived of life . . . without due process of law.” Nevertheless, today Justice Breyer takes on the role of the abolitionists in this long-running drama, arguing that the text of the Constitution and two centuries of history must yield to his “20 years of experience on this Court,” and inviting full briefing on the continued permissibility of capital punishment, post, at 2 (dissenting opinion).

Historically, the Eighth Amendment was understood to bar only those punishments that added “ ‘terror, pain, or disgrace’ ” to an otherwise permissible capital sentence. Baze v. Rees, 553 U. S. 35, 96 (2008) (Thomas, J., concurring in judgment). Rather than bother with this troubling detail, Justice Breyer elects to contort the constitutional text. Redefining “cruel” to mean “unreliable,” “arbitrary,” or causing “excessive delays,” and “unusual” to include a “decline in use,” he proceeds to offer up a white paper devoid of any meaningful legal argument.

Even accepting Justice Breyer’s rewriting of the Eighth Amendment, his argument is full of internal contradictions and (it must be said) gobbledy-gook. He says that the death penalty is cruel because it is unreliable; but it is convictions, not punishments, that are unreliable. Moreover, the “pressure on police, prosecutors, and jurors to secure a conviction,” which he claims increases the risk of wrongful convictions in capital cases, flows from the nature of the crime, not the punishment that follows its commission. Post, at 6. Justice Breyer acknowledges as much: “[T]he crimes at issue in capital cases are typically horrendous murders, and thus accompanied by intense community pressure.” Ibid. That same pressure would exist, and the same risk of wrongful convictions, if horrendous death-penalty cases were converted into equally horrendous life-without-parole cases. The reality is that any innocent defendant is infinitely better off appealing a death sentence than a sentence of life imprisonment. (Which, again,Justice Breyer acknowledges: “[C]ourts (or State Governors) are 130 times more likely to exonerate a defendant where a death sentence is at issue,”post, at 5.) The capital convict will obtain endless legal assistance from the abolition lobby (and legal favoritism from abolitionist judges), while the lifer languishes unnoticed behind bars.

Justice Breyer next says that the death penalty is cruel because it is arbitrary. To prove this point, he points to a study of 205 cases that “measured the ‘egregiousness’ of the murderer’s conduct” with “a system of metrics,” and then “compared the egregiousness of the conduct of the 9 defendants sentenced to death with the egregiousness of the conduct of defendants in the remaining 196 cases [who were not sentenced to death],” post, at 10–11. If only Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hume knew that moral philosophy could be so neatly distilled into a pocket-sized, vade mecum “system of metrics.” Of course it cannot: Egregiousness is a moral judgment susceptible of few hard-and-fast rules. More importantly, egregiousness of the crime is only one of several factors that render a punishment condign—culpability, rehabilitative potential, and the need for deterrence also are relevant. That is why this Court has required an individualized consideration of all mitigating circumstances, rather than formulaic application of some egregiousness test.

It is because these questions are contextual and admit of no easy answers that we rely on juries to make judgments about the people and crimes before them. The fact that these judgments may vary across cases is an inevitable consequence of the jury trial, that cornerstone of Anglo-American judicial procedure. But when a punishment is authorized by law—if you kill you are subject to death—the fact that some defendants receive mercy from their jury no more renders the underlying punishment “cruel” than does the fact that some guilty individuals are never apprehended, are never tried, are acquitted, or arepardoned.

Justice Breyer’s third reason that the death penalty is cruel is that it entails delay, thereby (1) subjecting inmates to long periods on death row and (2) undermining the penological justifications of the death penalty. The first point is nonsense. Life without parole is an even lengthier period than the wait on death row; and if the objection is that death row is a more confining environment, the solution should be modifying the environment rather than abolishing the death penalty. As for the argument that delay undermines the penological rationales for the death penalty: In insisting that “the major alternative to capital punishment—namely, life in prison without possibility of parole—also incapacitates,” post, at 24, Justice Breyerapparently forgets that one of the plaintiffs in this very case was already in prison when he committed the murder that landed him on death row.Justice Breyer further asserts that “whatever interest in retribution might be served by the death penalty as currently administered, that interest can be served almost as well by a sentence of life in prison without parole,” post, at 27. My goodness. If he thinks the death penalty not much more harsh (and hence not much more retributive), why is he so keen to get rid of it? With all due respect, whether the death penalty and life imprisonment constitute more-or-less equivalent retribution is a question far above the judiciary’s pay grade. Perhaps Justice Breyer is more forgiving—or more enlightened—than those who, like Kant, believe that death is the only just punishment for taking a life. I would not presume to tell parents whose life has been forever altered by the brutal murder of a child that life imprisonment is punishment enough.

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