Legislating from the Bench

Thu, 26 Jun 2008 02:39:22 +0000

Between now and the November elections, we will likely hear Senator McCain describe his preferences for Supreme Court nominees who will not "legislate from the bench." I think the liberal wing of the court--including Justice Kennedy writing for the 5-4 majority--gave him a clear example of legislating from the bench in today's Kennedy v. Louisiana decision. From The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — The death penalty is unconstitutional as a punishment for the rape of a child, a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The 5-to-4 decision overturned death penalty laws in Louisiana and five other states. The only two men in the country who have been sentenced to death for the crime of child rape, both in Louisiana, will receive new sentences of life without parole.

The court went beyond the question in the case to rule out the death penalty for any individual crime — as opposed to “offenses against the state,” such as treason or espionage — “where the victim’s life was not taken.”

[...]

The case, Kennedy v. Louisiana, No. 07-343, was an appeal by one of the two Louisiana inmates, Patrick Kennedy. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003 for raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter, whose injuries were severe enough to require emergency surgery. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Mr. Kennedy’s conviction and rejected his challenge to the constitutionality of his sentence.

Why do I think this is "legislating from the bench?" See Justice Alito's dissent, quoted at Volokh Conspiracy:

A major theme of the Court’s opinion is that permitting the death penalty in child-rape cases is not in the best interests of the victims of these crimes and society at large. In this vein, the Court suggests that it is more painful for child-rape victims to testify when the prosecution is seeking the death penalty. Ante, at 32. The Court also argues that “a State that punishes child rape by death may remove a strong incentive for the rapist not to kill the victim,” ante, at 35, and may discourage the reporting of child rape, ante, at 34–35.

These policy arguments, whatever their merits, are simply not pertinent to the question whether the death penalty is “cruel and unusual” punishment. The Eighth Amendment protects the right of an accused. It does not authorize this Court to strike down federal or state criminal laws on the ground that they are not in the best interests of crime victims or the broader society. The Court’s policy arguments concern matters that legislators should—and presumably do—take into account in deciding whether to enact a capital child-rape statute, but these arguments are irrelevant to the question that is before us in this case. Our cases have cautioned against using “ ‘the aegis of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause’ to cut off the normal democratic processes,” Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, 323 (2002) (Rehnquist, C. J., dissenting), in turn quoting Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U. S. 153, 176 (1976), (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and STEVENS, JJ.), but the Court forgets that warning here.

Read the whole post. I expect this decision to come up with some regularity in the remainder of the campaign.