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
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.

Democracy Is on the Ballot: One Party Defends It, The Other Would Let It Die

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—explains why the 2020 Democratic National Convention was unlike any other political gathering in American history for reasons beyond its virtual platform. Sarat argues that the future of American democracy lies in the balance, and when we vote in November, it will be up to us whether democracy lives or dies.

Memorializing Miscarriages of Justice

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—describes the value of writing to memorialize miscarriages of justices and lauds federal district judge Carlton W. Reeves for doing so in a recent opinion. Sarat points out that Judge Reeves faithfully applied the doctrine of qualified immunity in the case before him while also powerfully noting in his opinion how dangerous that the police officer’s unjust stop detainment was for that Black motorist.

Barr’s Testimony Is the Latest Example of the Trump Administration’s War on Congressional Oversight

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on Attorney General William Barr’s appearance last week before the House Judiciary Committee. Sarat argues that Barr’s testimony exemplifies the Trump administration’s defiance of the constitutional principle of congressional oversight.

Dear House Judiciary Committee: In Questioning William Barr, Employ the Ethics Complaint That 27 Distinguished DC Lawyers Filed Wednesday

Frederick Baron, former associate deputy attorney general and director of the Executive Office for National Security in the Department of Justice, Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, and Austin Sarat, Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College, call upon the House Judiciary Committee to carefully read the ethics complaint by 27 distinguished DC lawyers against William Barr before questioning him today, July 28, 2020.

Trump’s Dubious Use of Clemency Relies on Its Most Conventional Idiom

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on President Trump’s commutation of the sentence of Roger Stone. Sarat observes the pattern of Trump using his exclusive power of clemency to help those who, like Stone, committed crimes that show disdain for the legal process, and he argues that Trump seems “incapable of grasping the meaning of mercy or of understanding its place in a decent society.”

Trump Turns History Into a Culture War Battlefield

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on President Trump’s Fourth of July speeches, in which the President described a nation at war with itself and its legacy. Sarat points out the irony of Trump accusing others of lying about or attempting to erase the past, and he notes that Trump’s own distortion of historical facts is a tactic that authoritarian, fascist, and totalitarian regimes have used in the past to legitimize the regime or erase inconvenient truths.

Upcoming Execution Tests Trump Administration’s Commitment to Religious Liberty

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on a religious liberty issue presented by the upcoming execution of Wesley Ira Purkey. Sarat explains that Purkey’s spiritual advisor is unable to attend Purkey’s execution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he points out that for the federal government to carry out the execution anyway would belie its purported commitment to religious liberty.

Latest Twist in the Flynn Case Highlights the Danger of Judicial Deference to Trump’s Administration

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on a decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit holding that U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan exceeded his power by refusing to grant the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss the case against Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security advisor. Sarat explains the relationship between the judiciary and prosecutors and points out that that judicial deference toward prosecutorial decisions can only be reconciled with constitutional governance if prosecutors respect, and are guided by, canons of integrity and professionalism. Sarat argues that the current leadership of the Justice Department shows utter disdain for such canons.

William Barr Has Made the Federal Death Penalty a Weapon in Trump’s Campaign Arsenal

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on Attorney General William Barr’s recent order to resume federal executions and the political implications of that order. Sarat briefly describes the history of the federal death penalty in the United States and explains that, regardless of what state we live in, when the federal government puts someone to death, it does so in all of our names.

The Illusory Quest to Execute Only “The Worst of the Worst”

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—explains how a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court allowing that state to proceed with its plan to execute Harry Franklin Phillips highlights America’s illusory quest to ensure that the death penalty be precisely targeted only at “the worst of the worst.” Sarat argues that it is now time to acknowledge that the attempt to exclude clear categories of offenders from death eligibility has failed to adequately protect the dignity of those prisoners, which Justice Anthony Kennedy viewed as a central part of the Eighth Amendment.

Not Letting Felons Vote Damages Democracy for All Citizens

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—argues that disenfranchising felons, as most American states do in some way, does substantial harm to everyone in our democracy. Sarat praises a recent decision by a federal district court in Florida striking down a state law requiring people with serious criminal convictions to pay court fines and fees before they can register to vote, but he cautions that but much more needs to be done to ensure that those who commit serious crimes can exercise one of the essential rights of citizenship.

Early Release Doesn’t Help Those Left Behind to Endure the COVID-19 Crisis in American Prisons

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—discusses the crisis the COVID-19 pandemic is having on America’s jails and prisons. Sarat argues that early release is a good start, but it cannot be the only solution, because all people, in and out of prisons, deserve to be treated with dignity.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court Dresses Up Culture War in Jurisprudential Garb

Austin Sarat— Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on the decision by the conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court halting the state’s stay at home order. Sarat points out that the opinion recapitulates, without acknowledgment, debates in analytic jurisprudence about the distinction between orders and rules, and he argues that while the decision may be good for the Trump campaign, it puts at risk the lives and well-being of Wisconsin’s citizens.