Comings and Goings at the Supreme Court

June 28, 2010

Today marks the last open session of the US Supreme Court for this term.  It also marks the last session for Justice John Paul Stevens, who resigned earlier this year, and whose proposed successor, Elena Kagan appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee today to begin her confirmation process.  As noted in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution by former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Norman Fletcher, Justice Stevens’ career covers the entire span of the “modern” US death penalty, from its re-instatement in 1976 (which Stevens supported) to more recent decisions restricting capital punishment by banning executions for those with mental retardation (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and for juvenile offenders (Roper v. Simmons, 2005).

In 2008, while upholding the legality of lethal injection, Stevens wrote that he no longer felt the death penalty could be justified on constitutional grounds.  He called capital punishment “pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purpose” and argued that as a result it is “patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment.”

His last major act involving the death penalty was to pen the concurring opinion in support of an extraordinary evidentiary hearing for Troy Davis, a hearing that took place last week.

Tomorrow, June 29th, will mark the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision, in 1972, that all capital punishment statutes were unconstitutional.  4 years and 4 days later came the decision that ruled states’ new death penalty laws to be constitutional.  Every year at this time, activists come to the US Supreme Court, braving the heat, for a 4-day Fast and Vigil, marking this unfortunately brief period of death penalty pseudo-abolition in the 1970s.  Those in the DC area should join them.