Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College.

Professor Sarat founded both Amherst College’s Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought and the national scholarly association, The Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. He is former President of that Association and has also served as President of the Law and Society Association and of the Consortium of Undergraduate Law and Justice Programs.

He is author or editor of more than ninety books including The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment (Cambridge University Press, 2019), The Lives of Guns (Oxford University Press, 2018), and Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty (Stanford University Press, 2014).

He is editor of the journal Law, Culture and the Humanities and of Studies in Law, Politics, and Society

Professor Sarat has received numerous prizes and awards including the Harry Kalven Award given by the Law Society Association for “distinguished research on law and society”; the Reginald Heber Smith Award given biennially to honor the best scholarship on “the subject of equal access to justice”; the James Boyd White Award, from the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities, given for distinguished scholarly achievement and “outstanding and innovative” contributions to the humanistic study of law; and the Hugo Adam Bedau Award, given to honor significant contributions to death penalty scholarship by the Massachusetts Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

His public writing has appeared in such places as The New Republic, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, The National Law Journal, Slate, The Providence Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Aljazeera America, US News, CNN, Politico, The Conversation, and The Daily Beast. He has been a commentator or guest on HuffPost Live, The Morning Briefing on Sirius Radio, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, The Rick Ungar Show, Democracy Now, ABC World News Tonight, All in with Chris Hayes, The Point with Ari Melber, and The O’Reilly Factor.

Columns by Austin Sarat
Coping with Constitutional Ignorance and Alienation

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—explains why ignorance of the Constitution is more consequential now than ever before, particularly coupled with increasing numbers of Americans who are indifferent or hostile toward democratic norms. Professor Sarat calls upon our leaders to take care to explain why our constitutional democracy is worth fighting for and to take up that fight every day.

California Gun Decision Opens Another Front in the Culture Wars

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—comments on a recent decision by a federal district judge in San Diego striking down California’s statewide ban on assault weapons. Professor Sarat observes that regardless of the outcome of the appeals in this case, the country will remain deeply divided about things like COVID-19 restrictions and gun ownership while our political leaders and the judges they appoint continue to repeat the underlying antipathies animating these divisions.

The Latest Front in the Republican War on Democracy

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—comments on efforts by Republicans in 32 states to restrict the ballot initiative and voter referendum processes—two key levers of direct democracy. Professor Sarat describes origins and development of these processes in our country and argues that the opportunity for citizens to vote directly on the policies that affect their lives is an important democratic tradition that must be preserved.

Pervis Payne’s Case Shines a Light on the Continuing Injustices of America’s Death Penalty

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—describes three kinds of defects and injustices inherent in capital punishment exemplified by the case of Pervis Payne, who is on death row in Tennessee. Professor Sarat points out that the death penalty in the United States is built upon erroneous convictions and miscarriages of justice, the prejudicial use of use of so-called victim impact evidence, and disproportionate targeting of defendants with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.

Lethal Injection’s Dreadful Failures: How States Are Trying to Normalize Accidents

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—describes ways in which states are attempting to normalize errors that occur during the process of lethal injection. Professor Sarat argues that lethal injection is demonstrably far from the painless form of death it once promised to be, and that it should be abolished in the United States.

The Dreadful Failure of Lethal Injection

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—comments on the decomposition of the legal injection paradigm over the past few decades, since it was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1999. Professor Sarat observes the evolution of the procedure over time and points out that none of the changes has resolved lethal injection’s fate or repaired its vexing problems.

Death Penalty Opponents Should Rethink Their Support for Life Without Parole Sentences

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—argues that life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP) are as problematic and damaging as the death penalty. For this reason, Professor Sarat calls upon death penalty opponents to reconsider their support for LWOP sentences.

Virginia Delivers a Rebuke to Trump’s Execution Spree and Points to the End of America’s Death Penalty

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—comments on the news that both houses of the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation abolishing the death penalty in that state. Professor Sarat explains why Virginia’s change in policy is so significant: it has executed more people than any other state and is the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to abolish capital punishment.

Why Georgia Should Take the Lead in Holding President Trump Accountable for His Crimes Against Democracy

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—and history teacher John deVille argue that George should take the lead in holding Donald Trump accountable for crimes against democracy. Professor Sarat and Mr. deVille point out that a criminal trial with Trump in the dock would be both “a galvanizing national seminar on democratic values” and “a chance for officers of the court to question the President in a forum where he could neither obfuscate nor intimidate.”

American Law’s Worst Moment—2020

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—explains why the police murder of George Floyd was the worst moment of 2020 in American law. Professor Sarat proposes that we remember the event and that date—May 25—as “infamous,” a word reserved for rare and atrocious events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in an attempt to capture the brutality and inhumanity of the act.

COVID Comes to Federal Death Row—It Is Time to Stop the Madness

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—explains the enhanced risk of COVID-19 infection in the federal death row in Terre Haute, not only among inmates but among those necessary to carry out executions. Professor Sarat calls upon the Trump administration and other officials to focus on saving, rather than taking, lives inside and outside prison.

Trump’s Lawyers Will Get Away with Facilitating His Anti-Democratic Antics and They Know It

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—predicts that because the lawyer discipline process is broken, President Trump’s lawyers will get away with facilitating his anti-democratic misconduct. Professor Sarat notes that Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD) released a letter calling on bar authorities to investigate and punish members of Trump’s post-election legal team, but he points out that while LDAD can shame those members, it still lacks the ability itself to discipline or disbar.

What Trump’s Pardons Reveal about Him and His Misunderstanding of Executive Clemency

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—describes how President Trump’s pardons reveal his “superficial and distorted” understanding of American values. Professor Sarat points out that for someone who claims to value the clemency power, President Trump has granted clemency fewer times than any President since William McKinley, who served from 1897 to 1901, and when Trump has granted clemency, he has used it to reward people whose crimes show their contempt for the rule of law.

How to Prevent Republican State Legislatures from Stealing the Election

Amherst College Associate Provost Austin Sarat and attorney Daniel B. Edelman explain the important role of Democratic governors in preventing Republican state legislatures from stealing the election. Sarat and Edelman describe a “nightmare scenario” in which Republican legislatures may try to strip the electoral votes of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada, leaving Biden with 232 electoral votes compared to Trump’s 306. The authors call upon the governors of those states to defend the integrity of their states’ election results, insist that there have been no “election failures,” and, if necessary, submit to Congress their own elector lists.

How to Repair the Damage Done by Donald Trump

Austin Sarat, Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College, and Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, describe how the United States can repair the damage to democracy done over the last four years by Donald Trump. Sarat and Aftergut point out the numerous times in American history that have witnessed repairs after serious damage, including President Ford’s reform of the Justice Department after Watergate and President Roosevelt’s New Deal reform after Hoover’s laissez-faire response to the Depression.

The U.S. Supreme Court Cannot Determine the Election Result

Amherst College Associate Provost Austin Sarat and attorney Daniel B. Edelman argue that there is nothing the Supreme Court can do to prevent governors from certifying slates of electors that actually reflect the vote of the people in their states. Sarat and Edelman explain why Bush v Gore is both inapplicable, and by its own terms, never supposed to be used as precedent.

The Fate of American Democracy May Depend on the Willingness of Democratic Governors to Fight Fiercely after the November 3 Election

In anticipation of a contested election outcome in November, Amherst College Associate Provost Professor Austin Sarat and attorney Daniel B. Edelman call upon Democratic governors to forward a slate of electors that reflects the preference of the greatest number of voters in their states, regardless of what their legislatures might do. Sarat and Edelman argue that the fate of American democracy may depend on these governors.

Should Department of Justice Lawyers Defy William Barr?

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on an open letter addressed to the 100,000 professionals working in the U.S. Department of Justice and published by Lawyers Defending Democracy. In the letter, more than 600 members of the bar from across the United States call on their DOJ colleagues to refrain from “participating in political misuse of the DOJ in the elction period ahead.” Sarat argues that the letter rightly recognizes that Attorney General Barr’s blatant partisanship endangers the integrity of the DOJ itself and its role in preserving the rule of law.

The Coming Constitutional Coup

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—describes how President Trump has laid the groundwork for a post-election coup d'ètat. Sarat points to Republicans’ intimidating voters from minority groups and others likely to vote Democratic, Trump’s shaping the federal judiciary with approximately 200 new judges, his pre-election statements, and the litigation already in progress as evidence of his plan to carry out a post-election coup by and through, not against, the law.

William Barr Uses Victims and Their Families to Prop Up America’s Failing Death Penalty System

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—argues that Attorney General William Barr erroneously characterizes the families of victims of violent crimes as a homogeneous group unified in their support of the death penalty. Sarat points out that, in fact, some families of victims oppose the application of the death penalty (for a variety of reasons), so by trying to justify the reinstatement of the federal death penalty as bringing closure to victims and their families, Barr and his political allies are simply using these victims and their families to support his political ends.