Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Juvenile death penalty

I could say something witty about yesterday's decision in Roper v. Simmons, in which the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to execute minors who commit capital crimes. I could, but the Rude Pundit says it better.

I've only skimmed the opinion, but suffice to say it's loaded with stuff to piss off the right-wing. For one, Section IV discusses the "overwhelming weight of international opinion" against applying the death penalty to juveniles. No doubt, that's going to make Bill O'Reilly choke on his falafel. The Court takes pains to explain that international opinion is not controlling, but the mere fact that it mentions international opinion would likely send the Federalist Society into spasms. In fact, they'd be spasming right now except for one thing. The majority opinion states that its ruling is predicated on "evolving standards of decency".

If there's one thing that's certain to make the wingnuts blow their tops, lose their lunch, and lapse into babbling incoherence (not that we'd notice), it's the notion that the Constitution might change. This idea of a dynamic Constitution is captured in the following quote from Justice Stevens:
"In the best tradition of the common law, the pace of that evolution is a matter for continuing debate; but that our understanding of the Constitution does change from time to time has been settled since John Marshall breathed life into its text. If great lawyers of his day--Alexander Hamilton, for example--were sitting with us today, I would expect them to join Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court. In all events, I do so without hesitation.

Scalia's dissent tears at this idea, and is quite a fun read. He hates both the idea of evolving legal norms as well as the citation of international precedent. Thus, he has a long bit on international law, as well. I think it's interesting that he points out that the majority looks at what the States do, but only looks at what foreign countries say. I'll have to think about whether that's a meaningful distinction. One distinction I think he falls flat on is his complaint that the Court doesn't refer to itnernational law when considering criminal procedure (like the exclusionary rule), but does so when discussing punishment like the death penalty. This difference could very well grounded in notions universal human norms regarding life and death versus merely cultural or political norms regarding the intrusive power of the state/rules of evidence/etc.

Anyway, as the Rude Pundit said, this has been a good day for justice in the United States, and we should celebrate that fact.