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
The Year’s Worst Legal Decision: 2023 Edition

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which ended affirmative action in higher education, is the worst legal decision of 2023, setting back efforts to dismantle white privilege in the U.S. and resisting the construction of a more inclusive society. Professor Sarat explains why the decision is undemocratic, exacerbating racial inequities and closing pathways to power and prosperity for students of color, contrary to the aspirations of a genuinely inclusive and egalitarian democracy.

Donald Trump’s Legal Strategy Draws its Inspiration from the 1969 Trial of the Chicago Seven

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that former President Donald Trump’s approach in his legal battles mirrors the tactics used by the defendants in the Chicago Seven trial, aiming to turn his trials into political theater and mock the legal process. Professor Sarat argues that Trump’s behavior, including his motion to televise proceedings and accusations against the legal system, are his attempt to subvert judicial proceedings and portray himself as a victim of political persecution, similar to the disruptive and publicity-focused strategies of the Chicago Seven.

Louisiana Judge Uses a Fog of Legalisms to Prevent Consideration of Clemency for Death Row Inmates

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a decision by a federal district court in Louisiana denying a preliminary injunction in a case involving death row inmates seeking clemency. Professor Sarat criticizes the court’s narrow interpretation of the governor’s directive regarding clemency hearings, arguing that it exemplifies a legalistic approach that disregards the broader context and intention of the governor’s actions.

In More Bad News for American Democracy, Americans Are Divided Over Who Is a Better Custodian of Democratic Values

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on recent polls suggesting a competitive potential election between former President Trump and current President Biden, with Trump leading in several key battleground states. Professor Sarat warns of the risk to American democracy, suggesting that President Biden needs to effectively counteract former President Trump’s narrative to emerge as the genuine defender of democratic values.

Massachusetts Governor Offers a New Way of Thinking about Crime, Justice, and Clemency

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey’s introduction of new guidelines aimed at reshaping the clemency process in the state, emphasizing mercy and addressing structural inequities in the criminal justice system. Professor Sarat praises Governor Healey’s approach as aligning with historical views on clemency and seeking to correct systemic wrongs, promote equity, and recognize individual growth and rehabilitation, despite the prevailing reluctance of many governors to grant clemency for fear of appearing lenient on crime.

When Free Speech Isn’t Free

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the complex and often costly nature of exercising free speech, particularly in the wake of controversial statements made by universities and their students about the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel on October 7. Professor Sarat highlights the backlash faced by those who have spoken out, from university donors withdrawing support to law firms rescinding job offers, and he argues that while free speech is a right, it is not without significant repercussions—both socially and professionally.

Why Donald Trump’s Bad Week Matters in the Ongoing Battle to Save American Democracy

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes a series of recent setbacks for former President Donald Trump, both legally and politically: key legal figures like Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro pled guilty and agreed to be cooperating witnesses in a Georgia RICO case against him, while his political endorsements and foreign policy comments have been met with criticism from both Republican opponents and his own base. Professor Sarat concludes that this bad week for Trump was a good week for democracy and the rule of law in the United States.

Response to Hamas Terror Attack Shows That Colleges and Universities Don’t Know How to Treat Jewish Students

Amherst professor Austin Sarat criticizes the response of U.S. college and university administrators to the October 7 Hamas attacks, highlighting perceived inconsistencies in their reactions to different forms of hatred and violence. Professor Sarat also explores broader issues around the treatment of Jewish students on campus, citing statistics on declining enrollment in Ivy League schools, increased incidents of anti-Semitism, and a lack of targeted diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives for Jewish students.

Fox News Host Greg Gutfeld Says the Quiet Part Out Loud: Right-Wingers Prefer Bullets to Ballots

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld has escalated right-wing attacks on American democracy by suggesting that elections are futile and calling for civil war as the only solution to the country's problems. Professor Sarat warns that Gutfeld’s rhetoric, unrepudiated by Fox News, poses an urgent threat to democracy and calls on the media and political leadership to educate the public on the dangers of such a mindset.

Dreading the Start of the Supreme Court Term

Amherst professor Austin Sarat expresses deep concern about the current U.S. Supreme Court’s potential effects on the country, arguing that the Court appears to be moving in a decisively conservative direction on issues like religious freedom, abortion, and affirmative action. Professor Sarat also raises questions about the ethics and legitimacy of the Court, citing public approval ratings and noting upcoming cases on racial gerrymandering, gun regulation, and administrative authority that could have significant societal consequences.

2023 Has Brought Mixed News for Death Penalty Abolitionists

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that the push for death penalty abolition in the United States faced a year of mixed outcomes in 2023, marked by a rise in executions but also legislative progress in some states like Washington. Professor Sarat observes that states like Alabama and South Carolina are making efforts to proceed with executions using new methods or secured drug supplies, Ohio and Tennessee have shown more cautious or progressive stances, signaling an incremental and complex journey toward abolition.

Special Counsel Jack Smith Calls Out Trump’s Use of Free Speech to Bully and Intimidate His Opponents

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that Donald Trump has weaponized free speech to undermine American democracy and legal institutions, posing a complex challenge for the judicial system and society at large. Professor Sarat emphasizes the importance of a pending legal motion for a gag order against Trump, arguing that it could be a critical step in countering the destructive effects of his inflammatory speech on the legal process and public trust.

Two Decades After 9/11, It’s Looking Like American Democracy Won’t Survive the 2024 Election

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that American democracy is at a critical juncture, facing existential threats in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. Professor Sarat contends that Donald Trump and his supporters are sowing distrust in the electoral system by labeling legal actions against Trump as “election interference,” a strategy that is dividing public opinion and undermining faith in democratic institutions, potentially leading to dire consequences for the future of American democracy regardless of the 2024 election outcome.

Trump’s Republican Allies Plan to Misuse the Power of the Purse to Protect Him

Amherst professor Austin Sarat criticizes efforts by some Republicans to use the power of the purse to protect former President Donald Trump from criminal prosecutions. Professor Sarat argues that such actions are not only an abuse of power but also potentially unconstitutional, undermining the separation of powers and echoing historic misuses of legislative authority.

Ron DeSantis and Jim Jordan Offer a Preview of How Republicans Will Politicize Justice in the United States if Given the Chance

Amherst professor Austin Sarat criticizes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Congressman Jim Jordan for decrying the “weaponization” of justice while themselves exerting political pressure to remove duly elected Democratic district attorneys. Professor Sarat warns that such actions undermine the independence of prosecutors and pose a threat to the rule of law, and he cautions voters to be vigilant against this danger in upcoming elections.

2024 Is Shaping Up to Be the Worst “Hold Your Nose” Contest in American History, and That’s Bad News for the Democratic Party and Democracy Itself

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes the deep dissatisfaction and uncertainty surrounding the potential presidential candidates for the 2024 election, with recent polls showing neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden as favorable choices for many Americans. Highlighting a historic level of pessimism about the country's direction, Professor Sarat warns that the upcoming “hold your nose” election, characterized by choosing the lesser of two evils, may pose a significant threat to the future of the Democratic Party and American democracy as a whole.

Idaho Judge Opens the Door for an Exploration of the Psychological Cruelty of Capital Punishment

erst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Gerald Pizzuto, whom the state of Idaho has sought to execute by lethal injection five times since his 1986 conviction for first-degree murder. Professor Sarat points out that U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill, who ruled in Pizzuto’s case, recognized the inherent psychological cruelty of capital punishment, particularly when it involves repeated rescheduling of execution dates.

Clarence Thomas, Donald Trump and the “Tribal View” of Ethics or What Would Abe Fortas Think About Today’s Scandals?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat critiques U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for his close relationships with conservative billionaires and the luxurious gifts and perks he’s received from them without proper disclosure, as recently reported by ProPublica. Drawing parallels to the case of Justice Abe Fortas, who resigned in the 1960s after a series of ethical missteps, Professor Sarat suggests that the current divisive political climate enables and even rewards ethically questionable behavior among leaders, as long as it aligns with tribal loyalties and partisan allegiances.

Why I Want My Students to Read Trump’s Latest Indictment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat highlights the potential of Special Counsel Jack Smith’s indictment of former President Donald Trump as a teaching resource in civics education, particularly in understanding the intersection of free speech, political lies, and democracy. Professor Sarat argues that the indictment can help clarify First Amendment rights concerning false statements, explain the importance of federalism in the U.S. electoral system, and illustrate the roles of “moral rebels” who stood against potential autocratic behavior, thereby offering crucial insights into America’s political culture and constitutional system.

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.