In early April 1976, Potter Stewart, Lewis Powell, and John Paul Stevens met for lunch at the Monocle, a venerable Washington steakhouse, and decided the future of the American death penalty. The three U.S. Supreme Court justices were in a bind. Each harbored substantial misgivings about capital punishment, but each man — Stewart especially — also felt constrained by the issue’s peculiar constitutional history and by the tidal wave of public support that returned the death penalty to the Supreme Court just four years after a splintered court had declared it dead.
In 1972, Stewart had brokered a 5-4 decision holding that the death penalty as then practiced violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The court’s ruling — in Furman v. Georgia — was a spectacular long shot. Just one term earlier, in 1971, the justices had upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Furman seemed headed in the same direction until Stewart struck an eleventh-hour deal with Justice Byron White, who’d been on the fence for most of the term. Stewart would abandon the moral statement against the death penalty that he’d intended to make and would instead say that the problem with capital punishment was excessive arbitrariness.
To learn more about how the death penalty is being used in each state, visit The Next to Die.Arbitrariness thus became the dominant theme in the most splintered decision in Supreme Court history. Each justice in the Furman majority wrote his own solo opinion — meaning that he spoke only for himself. Each emphasized a different aspect of arbitrariness. Some focused on racism. Some focused on the failure of states to condemn only the “worst” criminals. Some focused on the infrequency with which the death penalty was employed. No one said precisely how much arbitrariness violated the Constitution. Surely Stewart understood, as his colleagues must have, that the focus on arbitrariness — as opposed to deeming capital punishment unconstitutional per se — left the door open for states to rewrite their laws. Nevertheless, the justices believed that, as Stewart told his clerks, “The death penalty in the United States was finished.
”That intuition couldn’t have been more wrong. Between the Furman decision and 1976, 35 states passed new death penalty statutes. Seven made the death penalty mandatory for murder. Others, including Georgia, instead attempted to make the process less “arbitrary” by requiring capital jurors to find “aggravating” factors, by separating capital trials into the guilt/innocence and sentencing phases we see today and by guaranteeing appellate review of all death sentences.
The political and legal momentum against Furman forced the justices to reconsider their positions. So, over two days of oral argument beginning on March 30, 1976, the justices evaluated the constitutionality of the various new state approaches, with Georgia’s new statute as the test case. The hearing had the feeling of a heavyweight prize fight, pitting against one another two of the great lawyers of their generation: Solicitor General Robert Bork, who, a decade later, would be nominated to the Supreme Court, and Anthony Amsterdam, principal architect of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s victorious strategy in Furman and widely acknowledged as the greatest civil rights lawyer of the 20th Century.
Two days later, on April 2, the justices met in conference to consider the new death penalty laws. Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall said they would reject both the statutes that made a death penalty mandatory for murder as well as statutes that gave jurors the discretion to sentence defendants to death. Justice White and three of the Nixon appointees—Justices William Rehnquist, Harry Blackmun and Chief Justice Warren Burger—said they’d uphold both approaches. The case came down to Justices Stewart and Stevens and Nixon’s fourth appointee, Justice Lewis Powell.
At that Washington steakhouse, the troika, as they’d come to be known, decided to split the baby. They would reject the mandatory statutes, which they regarded as barbaric, but uphold the guided discretion approach. Together with the four Nixon appointees, they formed a 7-2 majority in Gregg v. Georgia, upholding Georgia’s new discretionary law, and, with Marshall and Brennan, a separate 5-4 majority rejecting the mandatory statutes. This Solomonic compromise created the bedrock principles of modern death penalty jurisprudence: that a non-arbitrary death penalty satisfies the Constitution and that the requirement of non-arbitrariness could be satisfied by Georgia’s approach.
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Source: The Marshall Project, April 30, 2017
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