For tradition, ritual, dignity and decorum, there’s nothing like the United States Supreme Court. And, believe me, it wasn’t easy. I could walk into the Oval Office with less difficulty.
Even with a ticket, you have to go through seven security checks, and be admonished twice about not talking or showing any sign of support or opposition before being escorted into the courtroom.
But, once inside the court any hopes the court was beginning to lean left were dashed the moment Justice Samuel Alito read the panel’s 5-4 ruling on the death penalty.
This case stemmed from a 2014 incident in Oklahoma’s death chamber when a condemned prisoner suddenly began to rise from the gurney to which he was strapped. In response, four death penalty inmates sued the state of Oklahoma, contending that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment. Their case made it all the way to the nation’s highest court.
Writing for five conservative justices, Alito denied the prisoners’ petition. Alito had no sooner sat back in his chair than Justice Sonia Sotomayor leapt to her microphone with a scathing dissent joined by all four progressives on the court.
But it was Justice Stephen Breyer who sounded the loudest trumpet of the day. Breyer chastised the court for not going far enough. It’s not enough to consider the legality of lethal injection, they argued. There’s a bigger fish to fry.
In a powerful 46-page dissent, complete with charts and maps, Breyer and Ginsburg laid forth all the problems with administration of capital punishment today. Its application is highly uneven, and varies according to race, income, gender, and what state the crime is committed in. And it’s subject to long delays. The average wait between sentencing and actual execution is 18 years, at great cost to taxpayers.
For all these reasons, Breyer and Ginsburg concluded, it’s the court’s duty to decide a more basic question: ‘whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.’
And, of course, they’re right. We long ago consigned the electric chair to history. It’s time to put the death penalty there, too.