Supreme Court Continues to Restrict Scope of Capital Punishment

The 8th Amendment of the Constitution, in its prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, holds at its core the fundamental American values of fairness, dignity, and justice.  Last week's Supreme Court decision on Kennedy v. Louisiana reaffirmed these values by once again finding the death penalty as not only an ineffective deterrent against crime, but also incongruous with the nation's "evolving standards of decency and redemption that mark the progress of a maturing society." (Trop v. Dulles). The court appealed to the "precept of justice" in holding that punishment is to be proportioned to the crime, and in the case of capital punishment this is indeed "a narrow category."

In delivering its opinion, the court held that the application of the death penalty had to rest on a "national consensus" that a death sentence was an inappropriate punishment to the crime of child rape.  The decision of the court also made significant reference to Roper v. Simmons, a 2005 ruling that appealed to international norms in ruling the death penalty an inappropriate punishment.  While the Supreme Court did not explicitly cite international human rights law in its decision, the values of decency, fairness, and dignity upon which it relies are shared universally.  Moreover, the language of international law pervades the friend-of-the-court brief submitted by Leading British Law Associations, Scholars, Queen's Counsel and Former Law Lords.  The brief, heavily referencing the UN Commission on Human Rights, hinges its argument on a "well-established global consensus" that "nations that retain the death penalty must progressively narrow the class of offenses punishable by death." This amicus brief, and the Supreme Court ruling that upheld its conclusion, affirms an internationally held respect for the value of human life within the American court system.

By "repeatedly taking note of other nations' practices in considering the application of the death penalty," and by simultaneously holding itself to the standard of national consensus, the Supreme Court expressed the implicit view that international norms are compatible with and even complementary to our national values. (See Redemption).  This view underlies the Opportunity Agenda's commitment to engaging the discourse of human rights here in the US.  As affirmed by the Supreme Court in their approach to Kennedy v. Louisiana, universal rights are fundamentally in sync with core American values.

Tags: death penalty, human rights, Supreme Court (all tags)

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