Sunday, October 14, 2018

In Death Penalty Cases, Race Still Matters

      Race has always played an imortant role in capital punishment in the United States and still does, according to contemporary evidence from death penalty challenges in two states. The two studies, one from Oklahoma and the other from Washington, both show that black defendants convicted of killing white victims are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants convicted of killing white victims.
      The Supreme Court was presented similar evidence three decades ago, but refused in McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) to take the logical Equal Protection Clause step in a death row challenge by a Georgia inmate. The 5-4 ruling, criticized by legal scholars as one of the Court's worst twentieth-century decisions, discounted a statistical examination of 2,500 murder cases in Georgia as showing no evidence of racial bias specifically in McCleskey's case. 
      In a unanimous decision this week, however, the Washington Supreme Court relied on statistics from a much smaller study to strike down the state's death penalty law on the ground that it was "imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner." The ruling  in State v. Gregory [Oct. 11] set aside the death sentence imposed on an African American defendant, Allen Eugene Gregory, for the home-invasion rape-robbery-murder of a white woman in 1996.
      In her opinion for the court, Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst cited statistical evidence from 1981 through 2014 that black defendants were between 3.5 and 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death after capital sentencing hearings as non-black defendants after other variables were taken into account. The authors of the study found no more than an 11 percent chance that what they called "the observed association between race and the death penalty" could have resulted from random chance rather than true association.
      In Oklahoma, the state's Court of Criminal Appeals refused to consider a similar statistical study as part of its decision in August 2017 to reject a similar challenge by an African American death row inmate on procedural grounds. Tremane Wood had been sentenced to death in 2004 after his conviction in a racially charged trial of killing a white man who had set up a New Year's Eve sexual assignation with the mother of Wood's son. 
      Wood relied in his third post-conviction challenge on a study, published in April 2017, that showed capital defendants in Oklahoma cases with white victims more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death as defendants in cases with non-white victims. The Oklahoma court had already refused to consider the study in an earlier case and devoted less than three full pages to reject Wood's plea.  
      Wood's case now gives the Supreme Court a chance for a do-over on McCleskey. In a petition for certiorari filed in November 2017, Wood's lawyers argued that the study showed that Oklahoma juries are "significantly more outraged when white lives are lost than when nonwhite lives are forfeited." That kind of "race-based discrepancy," the lawyers argued, "is repugnant to both modern societal mores and to the United States Constitution."
      In their response, the state's lawyers went beyond arguing procedural default on Wood's part to attack the study in their words as "fatally flawed." The study was incomplete, the state's lawyers argued, because it did not take into account all of eight of the aggravating circumstances listed in the state's death penalty law. The justices have shown no interest so far: the case, Wood v. Oklahoma, 17-6801, was listed for the justices' conference on March 2 and has been rescheduled 15 times since then with no action yet.
      With the decision in Gregory, Washington became the twentieth state to eliminate capital punishment. The state was already observing a moratorium on executions imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2014 and had been a laggard in capital punishment even earlier, with only five executions since 1987. The state's death row housed only eight inmates, whose sentences were reduced to life imprisonment under the court's ruling. 
      In contrast to Washington, Oklahoma has been one of the leading death penalty states, with 112 executions carried out since 1990 — the third largest number of any state after Texas and Virginia. Forty-nine inmates now await execution, but the state imposed a moratorium in 2015 a year after a widely criticized botched lethal injection execution. The convicted murderer Clayton Lockett was pronounced dead of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began only after visibly and audibly struggling and writhing in what his lawyer described as akin to torture.
      Lockett was administered a sedative, midazolam, that has been criticized in successive Eighth Amendment challenges as failing to render an inmate unconscious during the final stages of a lethal injection execution. The Supreme Court refused to disallow the procedure, however, in an Oklahoma case, Glossip v. Gross (2015),  that followed Lockett's execution. 
      Four terms later, the Court is still not moved to step in to ensure humane executions. The justices rejected a similar challenge to the use of midazolam in a decision last week [Oct. 11] to deny a stay of execution sought by a Tennessee inmate, Edmund Zagorski. In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, said the hands-off decision amounted to "complicity in state-sponsored brutality." Sadly, the inaction in Wood's case implicates the justices as well in the racial bias all too evident in the United States' flawed death penalty machinery.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

No Mandate for Supreme Court to Turn to Right

      The Supreme Court that takes the bench on Tuesday [Oct. 9] will have the weakest political mandate of any group of justices in U.S. history. But with a conservative majority solidified by the razor-thin confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, the Court is poised to make fundamental changes in American law more rapidly than at any previous time in the Court’s history and to test public confidence in the Court's legitimacy and impartiality.
      With Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the Court now includes four justices appointed by Republican presidents who gained the White House despite losing the popular vote: two named by President George W. Bush, after his popular-vote majority re-election in 2004, and now two chosen by Donald Trump. With no popular mandate, Trump in his two appointments and Bush in one followed the Republican model set by Richard Nixon in the 1960s by pushing the partisan envelope on Supreme Court appointments as far as the political system would tolerate.
      Kavanaugh joins three other justices who won Senate confirmation in narrow roll-call votes and, according to one political scientist’s calculations, from senators representing a minority of American voters. The Court may have been intended in the constitutional system to play a countermajoritarian role to some extent, but the Constitution envisions that the justices with that power be nominated and confirmed by political branches responsive to public sentiment.
      Here are the figures, according to Trinity College political scientist Kevin McMahon, from his article “Will the Supreme Court Still 'Seldom Stray Very Far'?: Regime Politics in a Polarized America,” in Chicago-Kent Law Review:
      * Clarence Thomas, nominated by the popular vote-majority president George H.W. Bush and confirmed by a Democratic-majority Senate by a 52-48 vote. Those 52 senators, including 11 Democrats from southern states with substantial African-American constituencies, had been elected with 43.2 million votes; senators voting no had been elected with 46.1 million votes (48.33 percent to 51.67 percent).
      * Samuel A. Alito Jr., nominated by George W. Bush in his second term and confirmed by a 58-42 Senate vote. Senators voting to confirm had been elected with 56.3 million votes; senators voting no had been elected with 61.1 million votes (47.95 percent to 52.05 percent).
      * Neil M. Gorsuch, nominated by Trump after his 2.9 million popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton and confirmed by a Republican-majority Senate in a 54-45 vote. In Gorsuch's case, senators voting against his confirmation had a substantial popular-vote edge over those supporting his confirmation: 73.4 million to 54.1 million (57.6 percent to 42.4 percent).
      In advance of Saturday's historically narrow confirmation [Oct. 6], the Washington Post’s Philip Bump provided a similar analysisby adding up the total populations represented by senators planning to vote for and by senators planning to vote against Kavanaugh. Senators voting no represented a majority of Americans: 55.8 percent, compared to the 44.2 percent of the populace represented by Kavanaugh's supporters.
      Kavanaugh has an added distinction, unlikely to be noted at his retirement ceremony several decades in the future. Nominated by a historically unpopular president, Kavanaugh is the most unpopular Supreme Court nominee in the history of modern polling. Bump cited an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll taken days earlier that found 40 percent of respondents supporting the nomination compared to 52 percent opposed.
      A CNN poll taken in August found a narrow plurality opposed to his nomination: 37 percent in favor compared to 40 percent opposed. Kavanaugh was the only justice to be under water shortly after his selection; he even fared unfavorably in comparison to the unsuccessful nominees Robert Bork and Harriet Miers, who both had positive ratings at comparable points in the process. Merrrick Garland, President Obama’s obstructed Supreme Court nominee in 2016, had a substantial positive rating: 52 percent in favor, 33 percent opposed.
      Among the Republican senators supporting Kavanaugh, Texas’s personally repellent Ted Cruz coupled his endorsement with a recycled denunciation of policy decisions being made by “unelected judges.” Cruz cited no examples, but he almost certainly was not thinking of the various Roberts Court decisions gutting campaign finance laws, such as Citizens United, or any of the pro-business, anti-consumer decisions crafted by 5-4 majorities.
      As successor to the generally conservative Anthony M. Kennedy, Kavanaugh will slide comfortably into lineups such as those; he signaled his pro-business views and his doubts about campaign finance laws in 12 years on the D.C. Circuit. In contrast to Kennedy, however, he may provide the needed fifth vote either to overrule or sharply restrict Roe v. Wade despite calling it an “important” precedent. Based on his vote to strike down a ban on assault weapons, Kavanaugh is also a likely vote for expanding Second Amendment rights beyond the narrow holding in Heller 10 years ago.
      Decisions along those lines by five unelected justices would be in defiance of public sentiment. The most recent poll indicates that three-fourths of Americans oppose overruling Roe v. Wade. On assault weapons, 70 percent of those polled favor stricter laws. And several polls indicate public concern about the Roberts Court’s pro-business orientation. With public confidence in the Court already slipping, Kavanaugh’s ascension as the Court’s fourth minority justice may embolden an activist conservative majority to put public confidence at greater risk unless Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. keeps them in check.