Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is the 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
Some Think Dylann Roof Deserves to Die, But Executing Him Lets Hatred Carry the Day

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat responds to a federal appellate court decision upholding the conviction and death sentence of Dylann Roof for the 2015 murders of nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a meeting of a Bible-study group. Professor Sarat argues that the death penalty is inappropriate even for one of this nation’s most reviled mass murderers because capital punishment has no place in a democratic society.

Abolitionists Must Put Reviving Clemency in Capital Cases High on Their Agenda

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat explains why death penalty abolitionists should prioritize seeking grants of clemency in capital cases. Professor Sarat points to studies showing that the use of clemency in individual capital cases has lagged behind a larger trend of states turning away from capital punishment and argues that we as a nation should demand from our leaders the courage and conviction to see people worth saving on death row and to exercise mercy toward them.

Capitol Police Officer Reminds Americans That Saving Democracy Requires Courage

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on an interview of Capitol Police Officer Michael Byrd regarding his role defending against the January 6 riot, and on Donald Trump’s response to Byrd. Professor Sarat and Mr. Aftergut argue that Byrd’s interview reminds us that the best way to deal with a bully who is himself a coward is to call his bluff.

What the American People Really Think About Capital Punishment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat critiques the conclusion of a study by Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College suggesting that the American public widely supports the death penalty. Professor Sarat points out that the study’s “sensationalist” questions are likely to elicit responses based on expectations of what the interviewer wants, rather than what respondents would do given the responsibility of deciding real cases in which a real person’s life is at stake.

Tucker Carlson, Viktor Orban, and the Trump/Republican Embrace of Authoritarian Violence

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut explain what Fox News host Tucker Carlson really means when he praises Hungary and its dictator Viktor Orban. The authors point out that Carlson and many Trump loyalists in the Republican Party want, and seem ready to use violence to achieve, a radical undoing of America that redefines both what this country stands for and what it means to be an American citizen.

We Need a People’s (Not Presidential) Commission on the Supreme Court

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that a People’s Commission—rather than a Presidential Commission—on the U.S. Supreme Court is the only way to ensure that a democratic dialogue that truly represents the interests of the American people. In support of this argument, Professor Sarat draws upon a recent Gallup poll about public confidence in the Court and the highly critical testimony of Yale Law’s Samuel Moyn and Harvard Law’s Nikolas Bowie.

What Is the Most Dangerous Part of the Republican Campaign Against Democracy?

Austin Sarat, Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College, describes nefarious Republican efforts to ensure victory in future elections by changing rules governing voting and the vote-counting process. Professor Sarat points out that Republican-dominated state legislatures are devising ways to insert themselves into the vote counting process and replace local election officials with loyal partisans.

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.