SHARPEN THOSE PENCILS:
The Nation is holding its annual
Student Writing Contest
. We’re looking for original, thoughtful student voices to answer this question: what have you learned from a personal experience that the next President should know before setting the agenda for the country? Winners will receive $1,000, and their essays will be published in The Nation. The contest is open to high school and college students. Deadline is May 31. Go to TheNation.com/student for info.
A LETHAL DECISION?
Amid a grueling presidential primary season and an especially brutal week in Iraq, the Supreme Court’s ruling in
Baze v. Rees
was a one-day news blip. Kentucky’s lethal-injection protocol has been found legal; executions around the country may resume. No presidential campaign issued a statement; no reporter asked the candidates for their views on whether a medical cocktail banished by veterinarians as too cruel for animal euthanasia is suitable for killing humans.
Yet there was real importance in Baze. Start with Justice
John Paul Stevens
, who in 1976 was part of the seven-vote majority who restored capital punishment. Stevens took the occasion of Baze to declare that thirty-two years ago he was wrong: the death penalty is, in fact, “patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment.” At age 88, Stevens has joined two of his colleagues from 1976 in a twilight conversion:
, who renounced “the machinery of death” in one of his last rulings, and
, who came to the same conclusion after he retired. Why it took them so long is a matter for biographers, but the curious historical fact is that–with Stevens’s change of heart–if the 1976 Supreme Court were resurrected and asked to vote again, the death penalty would lose, 5-4.
Maybe historical what-ifs don’t matter much, but the fractured ruling–no more than three Justices signed on to any single opinion–left plenty of what-ifs about the future too. What if executions in other states bring more data about the failures and flaws of lethal injection? What if, as Chief Justice
suggested, states concoct yet another method, with less risk of pain? More litigation is one of the few certainties of this knotted case. Then add the troubled concurrences of Justices Stevens and Breyer, the dissents of Ginsburg and Souter and the likelihood of changes on the Court, and another what-if presents itself: what if the next Justices to join Stevens, Blackmun and Powell don’t wait until they are 88? BRUCE SHAPIRO