Friday 13 April 2012

More Small Steps towards Abolition in the United States

Yesterday, the Connecticut State Legislature voted to repeal legislation authorizing imposition of the death penalty. The bill now goes to the Governor, who has said that he will sign the measure into law.
Connecticut becomes the fifth state in the United States in recent years to have put an end to capital punishment. Some other states have also come very close to repeal of capital punishment provisions.
It may seem like a very small step, and cynics will note that Connecticut has not used the death penalty in recent times. But the importance of such developments will be felt at the Supreme Court, which has developed a doctrine by which the interpretation of the eighth amendment ("cruel and unusual punishment") is informed by legislative developments in the states. For example, in Roper v. Simmonds, decided in 2005, the Supreme Court put an end to the death penalty for juvenile offenders noting a trend in this direction within the legislation of states. It says that this is a strong indicator of "evolving standards of decency" that direct the interpretation of the eighth amendment.
Such developments are totally consistent with what is happening at the global level. With a few notable exceptions (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia), the dwindling group of states that employ the death penalty is using it less and less.
There are likely to be more such abolitionist moves within the states of the United States. At some point, probably sooner rather than later, this will reach a tipping point that will then drive a challenge in the Supreme Court to the constitutionality of capital punishment. Something else is also essential: a few of the dinosaurs on the Supreme Court need to take early retirement, paving the way for President Obama to make progressive appointments. I'd bet that the death penalty will be through in the United States before this decade is over.

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