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 Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution (Stanford University Press, 2022), 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
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards Says He is a Death Penalty Opponent. Now He Has a Chance to Prove It

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on an announcement last March by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards that he opposed capital punishment and points out that now Governor Edwards has the opportunity to prove his opposition. Professor Sarat argues that Governor Edwards should use his authority to order the Board of Pardons to hold hearings on the death row clemency petitions and review them on their merits to turn his abolitionist rhetoric into action.

Why Some States Retain the Death Penalty But Never Use It

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on so-called quasi-death-penalty states, which have criminal laws authorizing capital punishment but have gone five years or more without executing anyone. Professor Sarat explains what it means that Ohio and Nebraska are joining the 15 other de facto abolition states and argues that, in the end, the fate of America’s death penalty will be decided as much in those places as in the few states which continue to carry out the bulk of this country’s executions.

What We Can Learn About the Death Penalty from the Cases of Two People Scheduled to be Executed Today

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on some lessons we should learn from the cases of two people scheduled to be executed today, July 20, 2023. Professor Sarat points out that the two cases—James Barber and Jemaine Cannon—demonstrate, respectively, that we are not executing “the worst of the worst” and that the execution methods we use are unreliable at best.

Kavanaugh Is the Latest Justice to Try Shoring up the Supreme Court by Trying to ‘Put Lipstick on a Pig’

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on recent comments by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh describing the Justices as respectful and restrained in their criticism of each other, despite written evidence in their opinions to the contrary. Professor Sarat points out the mocking and sometimes disparaging language that some Justices have used in discussing opposing views in the contentious cases of late.

Supreme Court’s Hypocrisy About Race on Display in Mississippi Death Penalty Case

Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out the hypocrisy of the Supreme Court in proclaiming the Constitution to be “colorblind” with respect to college admissions but turning a blind eye to blatant discrimination in the case of a Black man sentenced to death in Mississippi. Professor Sarat describes the facts of Clark v. Mississippi and argues that by refusing to act, the Supreme Court tacitly condones Mississippi’s blatant flaunting of the Court’s precedent.

Fourth of July Thoughts About What the Executions Carried Out So Far This Year Tell Us About America’s Death Penalty

In the spirit of American Independence Day, Amherst professor Austin Sarat suggests that we not only celebrate America’s ideals but also reflect on its failings—failings that include its continued use of capital punishment. Professor Sarat reiterates the problems with capital punishment, such as the ineffective and inhumane methods of execution, racial inequities, time on death row, and the fact that most of those we execute are victims of extensive abuse and neglect from childhood or earlier.

Samuel Alito Channels His Inner Donald Trump and Shows Himself to Be the ‘Trumpiest’ Supreme Court Justice

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the most recent off-the-Court behavior by Justice Samuel Alito: preemptively responding to a ProPublica report that the Justice had gone on a $100,000 trip paid for by Republican mega-donor Paul Singer. Professor Sarat argues that this behavior is just the latest demonstration of Alito’s “grievance conservatism” and has no place on the highest court in the land.

Just Another Death Row Exoneration?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent exoneration of Barry Lee Jones from Arizona’s death row after evidence against him was revealed as “flawed.” Professor Sarat argues that shoddy defense lawyering, junk science, and myopic police work are regular features of America’s death penalty system and that dismantling the death penalty system is the only way to end the epidemic of false convictions.

Missouri Case Illustrates the Reality of Juror Regret in Capital Cases and the Danger of the Death Penalty’s Finality

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent execution of Michael Tisius by the state of Missouri, despite a request by several of the jurors who sentenced him to death in 2010 that his sentence be commuted to life without parole. Professor Sarat points out that the finality and likelihood of errors are but two reasons that any civil and just society should abolish the death penalty.

Lessons Learned When Abolitionists Seek to Save the Lives of Mass Murderers Like Robert Bowers

Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out that when death penalty abolitionists take up the cause of saving the lives of people accused of mass murder, they need also to keep reminding people that, in the many less notorious cases in which the state seeks death as a punishment, the death penalty continues to legitimize vengeance, intensify racial divisions, promise simple solutions to complex problems, and damage our political and legal institutions.

Chief Justice John Roberts and the “Privilege” of Seeing the World from Behind Fences and Barricades

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the acceptance speech by Chief Justice John Roberts of the American Law Institute’s Henry Friendly Medal. Professor Sarat argues that the speech demonstrates the Chief Justice’s lack of empathy for litigants whose lives the Court’s decisions affect and a lack of awareness of his own life of privilege.

Alabama Death Penalty Case Reveals Clarence Thomas’s Cruelty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s use of lethal injection as a method of execution. Professor Sarat argues that Justice Thomas has seldom come across a death sentence he wouldn’t uphold or an execution he wouldn’t try to expedite—and his opinion in this case was no exception.

Why Even Our Conservative-Dominated Supreme Court Needs to Stop Richard Glossip’s Execution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues forcefully that the U.S. Supreme Court should stay the execution of Richard Glossip, whom Oklahoma is planning to execute on May 18 despite serious doubts about the fairness and reliability of his conviction. Professor Sarat points out that the Oklahoma Attorney General supports Glossip’s application for a stay, recognizing that to carry out the execution would irreparably harm both the defendant and the integrity of Oklahoma’s justice system.

Washington’s Abolition Illustrates the Value of “Strategic Gradualism” in the Struggle to End the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how Washington’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee’s approach to the death penalty demonstrates the value of “strategic gradualism.” Professor Sarat points out that the careful use of a scalpel, particularly in the movement to abolish the death penalty, can be more effective than the use of a sledgehammer.

Will the Republican Party’s Embrace of Messianic Politics Destroy the Party or American Democracy?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the Republican Party has embraced a kind of messianic politics, which divides the world into two categories: those who are “faithful” and those who are “heretics.” Professor Sarat explains why this dualistic division is dangerous and antithetical to democracy.

From the Halls of Congress to the Tennessee Legislature the Republican Party Is Consumed by The Desire For Revenge and Retribution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the Republican Party has been consumed by the desire for revenge and retribution rather than love of country. Professor Sarat points out that a path toward a viable, democracy-loving second party will be bumpy, but has already been paved by the will of the voters in the last three national elections, which resulted in rejection of Trump and his MAGA followers.

It Is Now Safe for Politicians in the Deep South to Openly Oppose the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that even in the Deep South, support for the death penalty is waning, with the latest development last week by Louisiana Governor John Bell Edwards announcing his support for ending the death penalty in his state. Professor Sarat calls upon other politicians in the South to sponsor and support bills to end capital punishment in their states.

Law Teaching in the Liberal Arts in the Trump Era

In light of unsubstantiated comments by former President Trump about prosecutors with a political agenda, Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the importance of teaching law in the liberal arts. Professor Sarat points out that legal courses in the liberal arts are one place where students can learn about the politics of law and appreciate that while law is not completely separated from politics, nor is law completely subsumed by it.

Why It May Be a Bad Idea for Nebraska Abolitionists to Again Put the Death Penalty on the Ballot

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why the plan by a coalition of death penalty opponents in Nebraska to put the death penalty on the ballot is a risky strategy. Professor Sarat points out that important and successful work that death penalty abolitionists have recently done to reframe the debates about capital punishment has not yet succeeded in the electoral arena, and history suggests that death penalty abolition is more likely to come from the top down than it is from the bottom up.

“Pro-Lifers” Choose Death

Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on recent news that Republican legislators in four Southern states have proposed legislation that would make abortion a capital offense in those states. Professor Sarat and Mr. Aftergut point out the hypocrisy and cruelty of so-called “pro-lifers” advocating the death penalty for those who seek—and those who assist others in seeking—an abortion.