Yesterday, the 2011-2012 Supreme Court term ended with the ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act. On June 29, 1972, 40 years ago today, the Court ruled existing death penalty laws unconsittutional in Furman v. Georgia. There's more on the case at the link, including the ruling, via Oyez.
A central issue addressed by the Court was the arbitrariness of the imposition of the death penalty at that time. The Death Penalty Information Center issued a report five years ago, Struck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty (available in Adobe .pdf format) that is still current; perhaps even more relevant today than five years ago.
Four years after Furman, a number of states had written and passed new capital punishment laws, and the Court revisited the issue in a series of cases, collectively referred to as Gregg v. Georgia. That ruling cleared the way for the return of capital punishment. Yet, in virtually every Supreme Court term since, death penalty cases have become a fixture at the Court, creating a highly complex, constantly shifting body of jurisprudence. Today, it's apparent to most observers that arbitrariness remains a hallmark of the death penalty.
Reuters Legal notes this landmark in today's Summary Judgments.
The Supreme Court saves the best for last, as we were reminded this week, when Monday's decision on Arizona's immigration law gave just a taste of the hoopla to come over yesterday's ruling on the federal healthcare law.
The justices' end-of-term rush inevitably leads to end-of-June anniversaries, and one that is particularly topical in these times is Furman v. Georgia. That decision, which is 40 years old today, found that arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The issue of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment is still very much up for debate. A lawsuit filed on Tuesday claims that lack of air-conditioning in Texas prisons, which led to the death of several inmates last summer, is just that, The New York Times reports.
While Furman v. Georgia ushered in a moratorium on executions in 1972, it only lasted a few years. Indeed, the biggest shift in the death penalty in recent years has been led not by the Supreme Court but by the states. In April this year, Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to repeal capital punishment, bringing to 17 the number of U.S. states that have done so.
Not all big Supreme Court decisions come in June. Next Monday, July 2, is the 36th anniversary of the decision that reintroduced the death penalty, Gregg v. Georgia.
I hope that readers will take some time this weekend and over the July 4th celebration to read the opinons and examine some other sources.
Here are some earlier posts relevant at this marker of time and law.
- More on David Oshinsky's Examination of Captial Punishment
- A Q&A With Michael Meltsner on the Reissue of Cruel & Unusual
- John Paul Stevens: The Vote He Would Take Back
- Editorial & Commentary on ALI Action
And for anyone who wants to dig deeper, I highly recommend Charles L. Black Jr's classic, Capital Punishment: The Inevitability of Caprice and Mistake.