Monday, July 6, 2015

A Procedural Quagmire

Over at Fault Lines (and if you haven't been going to Fault Lines, you should start), Christian Farias has a post on the constitutional difficulty of getting the Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional.  The problem is a constitutional conflict.  

Chief Justice Warren's plurality opinion in Trop v. Dulles holds that the 8th Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" 
must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.
Those evolving standards are where constitutional abolitionists try to make their stand.  But the 5th Amendment specifically authorizes capital prosecutions and executions.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
And as as Antonin Scalia, who hates Trop the way Ted Cruz hates Obamacare, pointed out in his concurring opinion (responding to Breyer's call for an outright 8th Amendment challenge) in Glossip v. Gross
It is impossible to hold unconstitutional that which the Constitution explicitly contemplates.
As Farias says, 
It's a devastating textualist argument.
I'm not a textualist (though I think the text matters far more than Breyer does, since he believes more in what he imagines the Constitution wants to achieve than in what it actually provides), but I've long understood that conflict to be seriously problematic.  

Of course, the problem can be resolved easily enough by the Rule of 5.  The Constitution, after all, means only and precisely what 5 members of the Supreme Court say it does.  If there are 5 votes to say that the death penalty violates the 8th and is therefore unconstitutional, Scalia's fulminations won't matter.  And that's clearly been the hope for nearly 40 years.

But there's another way, the way Harry Blackmun was pointing in Callins v. Collins  when he concluded that the death penalty was unconstitutional.  

The 8th Amendment requires that the death penalty be imposed fairly, consistently, and reliably.  The 5th Amendment says that as long as there's sufficient process, executions are constitutional. Blackmun's epiphany, after his years of "tinkering with the machinery of death" is that the requirements cannot be reconciled.  What we've come to learn, what experience has taught, is that the framers expectation cannot be satisfied.  No amount of process is sufficient to achieve what the 8th Amendment requires.  

Here's Blackmun (footnotes omitted):
From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored — indeed, I have struggled — along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor.1Rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question — does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants "deserve" to die? — cannot be answered in the affirmative. It is not simply that this Court has allowed vague aggravating circumstances to be employed, see, e. g., Arave v. Creech, 507 U. S. 463 (1993), relevant mitigating evidence to be disregarded, see, e. g., Johnson v. Texas, 509 U. S. 350 (1993), and vital judicial review to be blocked, see, e. g., Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722 (1991). The problem is that the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.
It's not the "evolving standards" of the 8th Amendment that the death penalty fails. It's the conditional authorization of the 5th Amendment.

At least, that's one argument.


  1. Well, I think the problem with the argument is that if the system cannot "accurately and consistently determine which defendants deserve to die" why should that not apply to any other punishment as well? At this point, I'm open to the suggestion that the whole enterprise is quite beyond us at this point, but you'll never sell that idea to a judge.

    Otherwise, it seems that the "textualist" argument is not only "devastating" but insurmountable. But of course that only applies to having the SCOTUS abolish the DP. It could be abolished by constitutional amendment, or it could just be repealed state by state as it already has been to a large extent.

    It's just my opinion, but I think there's a lot to recommend a vigorous public debate about the death penalty as over and against getting five votes on the SCOTUS by "guerilla warfare".

  2. Powell's opinion in McCleskey v. Kemp made your point about the larger system: If racism is pervasive in the death penalty context, that would raise questions for the whole criminal justice system, and we're not willing to go there. As Brennan said in dissent, it was a "fear of too much justice."

    On the other hand, that doesn't make the argument wrong. It just raises the question of whether you can count to 5 - which is always the issue. And no, it's not insurmountable. Take the simplest argument. If the 8th says that executions can't be "cruel" but it turns out that there's no non-cruel way to execute in accordance with the law, then the 8th prohibits what the 5th would allow IF THERE WERE A WAY. The other argument - if the 5th would permit it, nothing can stand in its way, is ultimately an argument like (I'm not being altogether fair here, but close enough for government work): Since Congress can declare war, we must have wars.

    And we're having that debate you want. Me, I'm just musing about SCOTUS. I'm wary of going there.

    1. Well, here's an interesting take:

      The idea is that, perhaps unlike the rest of the constitution, the 8th amendment evolves, even to an originalist or textualist, because, say, the meaning of "cruel" changes. Judges might be able to go along with something like that, since it doesn't call the legitimacy of the whole system into question.

      Anyway, there's a lot of interest in the wake of Glossip, I guess.