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Death, Juries and Scalia | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

Death, Juries and Scalia

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Amid all the recent assaults on the Bill of Rights, including the latest
trashing in the USA Patriot Act and the denial of habeas corpus to
citizens, amid all this, in the span of one week, the Supreme Court has
issued rulings almost beyond the dreams of the most ardent civil
libertarians.

Listen to the exultant cry of Steven Hawkins, executive director of the
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, who said this is "the
most favorable term in a quarter of a century, in terms of death penalty
jurisprudence."

For those who have gazed aghast over the past generation as jury rights
have been trampled by tough-on-crime fanatics and liberal elites, there
are paragraphs in certain opinions in the Court's rulings that are as
momentous as any in the Warren Court. From whose pen did these
sentiments issue?

"My observing over the past twelve years the accelerating propensity of
both state and federal legislatures to adopt sentencing factors
determined by judges that increase punishment beyond what is authorized
by the jury's verdict, and my witnessing the belief of a near majority
of my colleagues that this novel practice is perfectly OK, cause me to
believe that our people's traditional belief in the right of trial by
jury is in perilous decline. That decline is bound to be confirmed, and
indeed accelerated, by the repeated spectacle of a man's going to his
death because a judge found that an aggravating factor existed.
We cannot preserve our veneration for the protection of the jury in
criminal cases if we render ourselves callous to the need for that
protection by regularly imposing the death penalty without it."

John Paul Stevens, you guess? No, Antonin Scalia. His emphasis on the
fundamental role of the jury as guardian of our rights under the
Constitution runs entirely counter to the trend of the past couple of
decades, when judges have, with either the approval or indifference of
legislatures and the press, been allowed not only to deprecate the
jury's fundamental right to nullify and set the law aside but also to
set jurors' verdicts aside and impose their own, often with lower
standards of proof.

By and large, liberals have been the architects of these erosions of
fundamental popular rights, whether it was Tip O'Neill rushing through
totalitarian drug laws in the mid-1980s; or Clinton's Antiterrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act (which, among other horrors, junked the
doctrine of habeas corpus); or the hate crimes statutes written into
many state codes at the behest of gay, feminist and liberal civil rights
groups in the wake of the James Byrd and Matthew Shepard killings.

Scalia exposes the contradictions tellingly in his concurring opinion in
Ring v. Arizona, where the Court struck down, 7 to 2, an Arizona
statute that allowed judges rather than juries to impose the death
penalty. He rightly chides Justice Stephen Breyer for inconsistency in
endorsing the right of judges to overrule the jury in tacking on
enhanced punishment under hate crimes statutes, and then, in Ring v.
Arizona
, for tacking the other way. Scalia's term for this kind of
pirouette is "death-is-different jurisprudence."

Another momentous Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia,
concerns a case in which a man with an IQ of 59 was sentenced to death
for committing a robbery and murder. The Court has ruled 6 to 3 that
times have changed and that it's not OK these days to put the retarded
to death.

Scalia, dissenting, made an argument in consonance with his view of the
jury's paramount role, as expressed in Ring. Why, he asked,
should the determining of a person's mental competence be allotted to
the social scientists, the IQ testers, the battery of so-called experts
so memorably stigmatized in the works of the late, great Stephen Jay
Gould? Liberals don't want to execute the mentally retarded; they just
want to abort or sterilize them. In the Atkins trial, Scalia noted, the
jury had been given testimony on the murderer's mental capacity but had
regarded it as insufficient in detaining the defendant from the death
cell.

Scalia asks, How can one exempt people from the capital penalty on the
grounds of mental incapacity to recognize the concepts of punishment and
retribution, and then put them away in prison for their rest of their
natural lives?

Where Scalia is caught in an obvious contradiction is in his endorsement
of the notion that only those prepared to vote for the death penalty
should be allowed on a jury, and that appeals court judges opposed to
the death penalty should recuse themselves in capital cases. "There is
something to be said," Scalia writes in his dissent in Atkins,
"for popular abolition of the death penalty; there is nothing to be said
for its incremental abolition by this Court." Again, it's a good
argument, but abolition of slavery began in part with the refusal of
juries to abide by statutes endorsing slavery. Ditto with religious
freedom, starting with William Penn, whose jury refused to convict him
for flouting the Conventicle Act.

If he were consistent, Scalia would recognize that jurors should be
rejected only if they have a material interest in the outcome of the
case. And given that some 30 percent or more in the United States are
opposed to the death penalty, such juries would more than likely have a
death penalty opponent among the twelve. On the role and rights of the
jury I strongly recommend Godfrey Lehman's Is This Any Way to Run a
Jury?

Meanwhile, we should honor the tremendous efforts of the defense teams
who fought these cases to the Supreme Court and who have been rewarded
by two decisions that overturn the death sentences of hundreds. But the
fact remains that it is the death penalty itself that needs to be
abolished, and this is a peerless moment of opportunity for death
penalty activists to press forward.

The Court majority said in the Atkins decision that the Eighth
Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment reflects social
values, which change from century to century and decade to decade
(notwithstanding Scalia, who gazes back nostalgically 2,000 years to St.
Paul). What an excellent springboard for an invigorated campaign to end
the barbarism of judicial killing.

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