An interesting thing happened on the way to Monday morning’s predictable Supreme Court ruling upholding Oklahoma’s use of a controversial lethal-injection drug.
The 5-to-4 decision rejected a claim by three death-row inmates that use of the sedative midazolam would put them at risk of severe pain. It also ruled preposterously that in order to succeed the inmates had to show that there is an alternative manner of execution that is significantly less painful but readily available.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr., writing for the majority, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing the main dissent, battled bitterly over both of these issues.
But it was Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that stood out above the usual noise: For 46 pages, a Supreme Court justice made the case that the death penalty most likely violates the Constitution.
In 1994, Justice Harry Blackmun announced that after a quarter century on the court he had given up on capital punishment and would no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” It was a remarkable statement because the court has never held that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional.
On Monday, Justice Breyer revived the issue, “rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time.”
In a thorough, data-laden treatise, Justice Breyer explained why today’s death penalty likely violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It is unreliable: More than 150 people sentenced to death since 1973 have been exonerated. It is arbitrary: Its application in any given case depends on factors like race or geography. Decades-long delays negate its claimed deterrent effect. And all but a very few jurisdictions have abandoned it.
All of these concerns, Justice Breyer wrote, are “quintessentially judicial matters” that demand the court’s attention. And yet his engagement with this important topic drew a one-word summation from Justice Antonin Scalia: “gobbledygook.” He mocked Justice Breyer’s challenges as having been voiced for years by death-penalty abolitionists. It did not seem to occur to Justice Scalia that the same issues surface again and again because the problem lies with capital punishment itself.