Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Someone has to play bad cop

No one likes to play bad cop. You know who I'm talking about: the one who told you as a child that you couldn't have that toy you wanted, or the one who told you as a teenager that you couldn't borrow the car to go out drinking on Friday night, or the one who told you last year that the Christmas bonus would be smaller than usual because times are tough and the cash flow is drying up. No one likes to play bad cop, but someone has to do it.

In the federal government, the Supreme Court is the ultimate bad cop. It's a group of nine unelected people in robes who deliberate secretly and often tell the majority of Americans that they can't have what they want, no matter how desperately they want it, because it's bad for them. It's a buzzkill when the justices strike down a law that millions of people like but that appears to violate the Constitution, but someone has to do it.

The Supreme Court played the bad cop for 19 states today by striking down the juvenile death penalty. The 5-4 opinion in Roper v. Simmons said evolving standards of decency and a steady decline in the number of death sentences handed out to juveniles have rendered it cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to sentence 16- and 17-year-olds to death for their crimes. The majority said that since juvenile offenders' capacity to make rational judgments and control their environment is much more limited than that of adults, the imposition of the death penalty against juveniles would serve neither a deterrent nor a retributive purpose.

The justices' opinion today also continued their recent trend of examining the international state of law as persuasive authority in guiding their decisions. Other nations' laws assuredly should not determine our own laws, but it's also important that justices consider their decisions' real-world effects rather than merely making their judgments in a vacuum.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion noted, the only other countries that have executed juveniles since 1990 are China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, all of which have since "either abolished capital punishment for juveniles or made public disavowal of the practice." That's not the kind of company I'd like the United States to keep.

The most common criticism I've heard about this opinion, as with almost every unpopular Supreme Court opinion lately, is that the justices overreached by making a decision better left to the legislative branch. It's a common refrain, but the reality is that the Founding Fathers knew lawmakers couldn't possibly account for how the Constitution or congressional statutes would apply to every fact pattern that might arise at every point in history, so they gave the judiciary the power to make such determinations. Today, the Supreme Court determined that the juvenile death penalty, as applied in 21st-century society, is cruel and unusual punishment. That seems to be within the Court's authority.

Juveniles, including the petitioner in today's case, sometimes commit atrocious, depraved crimes in cold blood, and it's impossible for me to see subjectively why someone who commits such a crime on the eve of his 18th birthday shouldn't be eligible for the death penalty but someone who does the same thing the next day should be. In the end, though, fallible humans have to draw the essentially arbitrary line between childhood and adulthood somewhere, imperfect though that line may be.

No one likes to play bad cop, but someone has to do it.

3 Comments:

Blogger Susan of LocalTint said...

Well done. I've got you linked at my little diatribe.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

Thanks. I was going to post some follow-up observations in the comments, but I think they deserve a post of their own, which will probably exist by the time you read these words.

5:55 PM  
Blogger mira said...

When this ruling came down, I knew what I wanted to say, but was having the kind of day where I couldn't write anything intelligent to save my life. All I was able to manage was a short rant. I now have a link to your post.

What I didn't realize at the time is that the U.S. was the last nation to eliminate the death penalty for juveniles. When Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Congo and China say our punishments are cruel, you know there's a problem.

12:16 PM  

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