Sunday, November 28, 2010

Former Justice Stevens: Death Penalty No Longer Constitutional

A New York Times article quotes former Justice Paul Stevens as expressing his strong objection to the death penalty.

The actual comments were published in the New York Review of Books, in which Stevens reviewed David Garland's new book Peculiar Institution. The NYT faithfully summarizes this interesting public declaration as follows:

In 1976, just six months after he joined the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens voted to reinstate capital punishment after a four-year moratorium. With the right procedures, he wrote, it is possible to ensure “evenhanded, rational and consistent imposition of death sentences under law.”

In 2008, two years before he announced his retirement, Justice Stevens reversed course and in a concurrence said that he now believed the death penalty to be unconstitutional.

But the reason for that change of heart, after more than three decades on the court and some 1,100 executions, has in many ways remained a mystery, and now Justice Stevens has provided an explanation.

In a detailed, candid and critical essay to be published this week in The New York Review of Books, he wrote that personnel changes on the court, coupled with “regrettable judicial activism,” had created a system of capital punishment that is shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.

What does this mean in the age of lethal injection litigation? Who knows? And, to what extent does Stevens' grim observation of the personnel change in SCOTUS hold true after the recent appointments of Sotomayor and Kagan? Thoughts from our readers welcome.

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