Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 1

1954—The Senate, by voice vote, confirms President Eisenhower’s nomination of former California governor Earl Warren to serve as Chief Justice. Warren was already serving as Chief Justice pursuant to a recess appointment by Eisenhower in October 1953. Years later, Eisenhower calls his appointment of Warren “the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.” That’s a highly dubious assessment, as Eisenhower also appointed Justice William Brennan. (To be fair to Eisenhower, his death in 1969, just months before the end of Warren’s time as Chief Justice but not much more than one-third of the way through Brennan’s tenure, prevented him from fully comparing what he accurately labeled his two biggest mistakes.)

2005—Relying on “international opinion,” the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, overturns its own precedent and rules in Roper v. Simmons that execution of offenders who were 17 at the time of their offense violates the Eighth Amendment. Roper starkly illustrates how the same justices who bow to the views of foreigners are disdainfully dismissive of the rights of American citizens to engage in self-governance in this country. Here’s a summary:

When he was 17, Christopher Simmons planned a brutal murder. He assured his friends they could ‘get away with it’ because they were minors. In the middle of the night, Simmons and a friend broke into a woman’s home, awakened her, covered her eyes and mouth with duct tape, bound her hands, put her in her minivan, drove to a state park, walked her to a railroad trestle spanning a river, tied her hands and feet together with electrical wire, wrapped her whole face in duct tape, and threw her from the bridge. Exactly as Simmons planned, his victim drowned an unspeakably cruel death in the waters below.

Simmons confessed to the murder. At the death-penalty phase of his trial, the judge instructed the jurors that they could consider Simmons’s age as a mitigating factor, and the defense relied heavily on that factor. The jury recommended, and the trial judge imposed, the death penalty.

In his majority opinion (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer), Justice Kennedy aims to discern “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Kennedy looks to the 12 states that have no death penalty and the 18 states that, “by express provision or judicial interpretation, exclude juveniles from its reach” to conclude that a majority of states—30 in total—reject the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds. In dissent, Scalia counters that it makes no sense to count states that have no death penalty: “Consulting States that bar the death penalty concerning the necessity of making an exception to the penalty for offenders under 18 is rather like including old-order Amishmen in a consumer-preference poll on the electric car.”

Kennedy then finds “respected and significant confirmation” for his ruling in “the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.” According to Kennedy, the fact that the United States, alone with Somalia in the world, has not ratified Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—which contains an express prohibition on capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles—supports his conclusion that the juvenile death penalty is unconstitutional. But as Justice Scalia observes in dissent, “Unless the Court has added to its arsenal the power to join and ratify treaties on behalf of the United States,” the United States’ non-ratification of Article 37 undercuts the majority’s position. Scalia also points out that the justices in the majority would never aim to conform American law to the rest of the world on matters like the exclusionary rule, church-state relations, and abortion. 

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