"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, June 26, 2006

Federalism, Will of People Win in Supreme Court's Death Penalty Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Kansas law mandating that juries impose the death penalty in cases where there is an equal weight of factors aggravating the severity of the crime and those tending to explain a defendant's actions. In order words, the law held that juries should impose the death penalty if mitigating factors do not explicitly outweigh aggravating ones. Tie goes to the victims, you might say. (Or to the executioner, if you think convicted murderers are more important than victims and their families.)

While not stating it directly, the New York Times story revealed that the Court's decision had a strong federalist component:

[T]he five conservatives, including Alito, overturned a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found the law violated the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. . . .

The ruling affirms the court's long-held position that states should determine how juries weigh factors presented by the prosecution and defense in capital cases. . . .

According to the Times story, Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion explicitly suggesting deference to state legislation on death penalty matters:

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion on Monday to defend the death penalty and the court's ruling in the Kansas case. [The claim that Scalia's opinion defended the death penalty as such is incorrect: his opinion was centered on allowing the people to decide these matters through their legislative representatives and governors. Note the next paragraph from the Times story.]

"The American people have determined that the good to be derived from capital punishment—in deterrence, and perhaps most of all in the meting out of condign justice for horrible crimes—outweighs the risk of error. It is no proper part of the business of this court, or of its justices, to second-guess that judgment, much less to impugn it before the world . . . ,'' Scalia wrote.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the decision ''signals that a majority of the court is not inclined to invent new procedural restrictions on the death penalty.''

That appears to be the correct interpretation of the ruling.

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