Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—October 1

(Photo Illustration: NRO)

2008—The Supreme Court denies the state of Louisiana’s petition for rehearing in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the case in which the Court held, by a 5-4 vote, that imposition of the death penalty for the crime of raping a child violates the Eighth Amendment. The basis for the state’s petition for rehearing was the Court’s failure, in discerning a supposed “national consensus against capital punishment for the crime of child rape,” to take account of a federal law enacted in 2006 that authorized military courts to impose the death penalty for child rape. The Court had instead mistakenly stated that federal law does not authorize the death penalty for child rape.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia—both dissenters from the original ruling—vote against rehearing on the ground that the majority was just making it up all along anyway. As Scalia puts it, in an opinion that Roberts joins:

I am voting against the petition for rehearing because the views of the American people on the death penalty for child rape were, to tell the truth, irrelevant to the majority’s decision in this case. The majority opinion, after an unpersuasive attempt to show that a consensus against the penalty existed, in the end came down to this: “[T]he Constitution contemplates that in the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.” Of course the Constitution contemplates no such thing; the proposed Eighth Amendment would have been laughed to scorn if it had read “no criminal penalty shall be imposed which the Supreme Court deems unacceptable.” But that is what the majority opinion said, and there is no reason to believe that absence of a national consensus would provoke second thoughts.

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