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
Prisoners Should Not Be Used as Human Guinea Pigs in COVID-19 Cultural Wars

Amherst professor Austin Sarat responds to recent news that officials in Arkansas’s Washington County Detention Center have been administering ivermectin to prison inmates without their knowledge or consent. Professor Sarat argues that this coercive and unethical practice effectively treats them as human guinea pigs, violating their dignity and autonomy in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

What the January 6 Committee Can Do to Persuade Independent Voters

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why it is so important that the hearings by the House Select Committee on the events of January 6, 2021, be and appear to be fair. Professor Sarat argues that an atmosphere of fairness and seriousness, similar to that of the Watergate hearings in 1973, is necessary not only to persuade independents about what happened behind the scenes on January 6, but also to turn the committee’s findings into a voting issue.

Prosecuting Trump May Be Right but Unwise

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why, even if there is a strong legal case for prosecuting former president Donald Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection, doing so may not be the wisest thing to do. Professor Sarat suggests that the Attorney General can and should put together a record for history to judge, but going forward with even a well-grounded prosecution of Trump would almost certainly turn him into a martyr and bring this country ever closer to the abyss it is already fast approaching.

It Is Not Too Early to Prepare for Life After the Abolition of Capital Punishment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes what death penalty abolitionists must do even as capital punishment in the United States wanes in popularity and use. Professor Sarat calls upon such advocates to invest time and resources in tracking and learning lessons from what has happened after states abolished the death penalty over the last 15 years.

American Law’s Worst Moment(s), 2021

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on American law’s worst moment(s) in 2021, noting that this year it was not a single moment but a series of events beginning with the January 6 insurrection. Professor Sarat argues that what followed the insurrection and ratified it demonstrate that Trump and his cronies are lining this country up for an unprecedented constitutional crisis in 2024, and Democrats have done nothing to resist the slow-moving coup.

After Roe, The Coming Fight to End All Abortions Everywhere

Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments that gives the Court an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade and related cases recognizing a constitutional right to abortion. Sarat and Aftergut point out that if the Court abandons Roe, that will ultimately spell the end of abortion rights in all states.

Why California Should Abolish Its Death Penalty and Why It Matters What That State Does

Amherst professor Austin Sarat calls upon California Governor Gavin Newsom to ask the state legislature to end capital punishment. Professor Sarat explains why this route is superior to the direct democracy route (which failed in both 2012 and 2016) and why it’s so important that California abolish the death penalty.

Kyle Rittenhouse, SB8 and the Dangerous Legalization of Vigilante Justice

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why the not guilty verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse sends a powerful message condoning vigilantism, particularly when coupled with the Texas law that authorizes private enforcement of its extreme prohibitions on abortion. Professor Sarat argues that vigilantism, including these instances, has historically taken root in times of social, cultural, and political transition, and in places with high levels of cultural diversity and institutional instability

Botched Executions Are a Feature, Not a Bug, in America’s Death Penalty System

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat points out that botched executions are commonplace in the United States and that their frequency has only increased during the last decade as states have experimented with different lethal injection drugs and drug combinations. Professor Sarat critiques the way journalists tend to cover these botched executions and argues that civil society needs to view these errors as routine, rather than as mistakes. The only way to break this pattern, he argues, is to stop altogether the practice of using death as a punishment.

Alito, Texas Abortion and the Shadow Docket: Déjà vu All Over Again?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on the U.S. Supreme Court’s increasing tendency to decide high-profile and far-reaching cases via its “shadow docket”—without oral argument or full briefing. Professor Sarat and Mr. Aftergut point out that recent remarks by Justice Samuel Alito reinforce the view that the Court has a partisan agenda that is increasingly out of step with the beliefs and values of the American people.

Will the Death Penalty Survive the Pandemic?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that a sharp reduction in executions during the COVID-19 pandemic represents a clear departure from the typical response to crisis in the United States. Professor Sarat explores whether this departure signifies the demise of capital punishment, or instead whether, as suggested by Oklahoma’s plan to execute seven people over the next six months, we will see a return to the historic norm.

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.