Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Death of the Juvenile Death Penalty

The United States was the last nation to ban juvenile executions. Amazing, but true. I feel that we as a country have taken a giant step forward in this decision to join the rest of the world.

That being said, I find the logic of the majority weak, relying as it does on international standards and a growing consensus in the states. I don't know that the Supereme Court has ever before relied on international standards in its law, so I am quite surprised the court felt that it could look there today ("The overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty is not controlling here, but provides respected and significant confirmation for the Court's determination that the penalty is disproportionate punishment for offenders under 18."). And despite the fact that five states have changed their laws to prohibit the death penalty on juveniles since the Supreme Court last visited the issue (and upheld the ability to execute juveniles), of the states that allow the death penalty (38), the majority of them (20) allow its application to minors.

To be fair, the Court relied on more than just consensus. It also applied the following logic, which it had previously applied to juveniles under 16, and to the mentally retarded:
  1. The death penalty is reserved for "those offenders who commit 'a narrow category of the most serious crimes' and whose extreme culpability makes them 'the most deserving of execution.'"
  2. Because juveniles are not fully mature, they lack such extreme culpability, and so not "even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character."
This decision will give strict constructionists fresh meat to bemoan judicial activism -- at its core, the majority substitutes its judgment for those of 20 state legislatures. Also, Scalia pulls no punches in his dissent as to how the majority has contorted itself in reversing a 15-year-old decision. Still, it's hard to complain with the result. And the beauty of the decision is that it should prevent the issue from arising again (and letting the court change its mind) -- the "consensus" on which the majority relied will be preserved by this very decision. Should a state wish to try to re-institute capital punshment for juveniles, it would be the only one, and would completely lack any sort of consensus on which to rely. And I can't imagine talk of a constitutional amendment to reinstate the juvenile death penalty would get far.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sorry Aaron, You know how I feel about this isssue. After having a juvenille violently murder a beloved family member. I wish N.C. had the policy to put that young man to death.