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
Judicial Deference and the Future of Lethal Injection

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent decision by a federal district court judge deferring to the evidence provided by the state in support of its lethal injection procedure, despite significant contradictory evidence. Professor Sarat argues that the trilogy of Supreme Court precedents on lethal injection not only altered the legal standards but tilted the playing field for fact-finding when death row inmates bring lethal injection challenges.

Can Finality Be More Important Than Justice Even If It Means Executing the Innocent?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Shinn v. Ramirez, in which the Court held that federal judges may not intervene in state cases to protect the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel, even when there is evidence evidence that the condemned might be actually innocent. Professor Sarat points out that the decision demonstrates the conservative Justices’ prioritization of finality over justice and serves only to further erode confidence in and support for capital punishment in this country.

Time, the Execution Process, and the Botched Lethal Injection of Clarence Dixon

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent botched execution of Clarence Dixon in Arizona, pointing out that the repeated efforts to place the IVs demonstrate that lethal injection is not a humane process. Professor Sarat describes the importance of time in the execution process and argues that courts assessing the start time of an execution (for purposes of Eighth Amendment challenges and Double Jeopardy challenges) should start the clock from the moment of the first physical invasion of the inmate’s body, contrary to the Ohio Supreme Court’s determination that the insertion of IV lines is “merely a ‘preparatory’ step to the execution.”

Fifth Anniversary of Arkansas’s 2017 Execution Spree Is a Good Time to Confront Capital Punishment’s Troubling Flaws

In light of the fifth anniversary of Arkansas’s capital punishment spree, Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes some of the major flaws of the death penalty. Professor Sarat points out that although lethal injection was once touted as a technological miracle that would ensure executions would be safe, reliable, and humane, the practice has had a history marked by problems, mishaps, and mayhem.

Aborted Tennessee Execution Highlights Lethal Injection’s Crippling Problems Part One in a Series

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Tennessee’s recent last-minute cancellation of the execution of Oscar Franklin Smith for a “technical oversight.” Professor Sarat points out that such problems typically mean that state officials identified contamination in the compounded execution drugs or the “use by date” had passed, but the veil of secrecy surrounding executions prevents the public from discovering the true nature of the problem.

Living in Capital Punishment Limbo

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes the current state of capital punishment in the United States, in particular, the 27 states that authorize death sentences but have not actually carried out an execution in the last five or ten years. Professor Sarat argues that this limbo for death row inmates causes unnecessary suffering and reflects an appropriate reluctance to kill in the name of the state.

New Federal Law Reminds Americans of What Lynching Really Means

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how politicians have misused the term “lynching” for their own political purposes, thereby threatening to dilute its meaning. Professor Sarat praises President Biden for signing into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act and calls upon the president and Attorney General Merrick Garland to use its historic passage to put the full weight of the federal government behind efforts to stem the epidemic of hate crimes plaguing this country.

Making Sure God Is Welcome in the Execution Chamber

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains how the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ramirez v. Collier demonstrates how the conservative Justices prioritize religious freedom over all other values, even speedy executions. Professor Sarat points out that the decision is just the latest waystation on the Court’s determined journey to put religion at the center of American life.

European Courts Deliver a Wake-Up Call about American Prison Conditions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how courts in Europe, when faced with the question whether to extradite an escaped convict to the United States, have expressed greater concern about the conditions of American prisons than do American courts or legislatures. Professor Sarat argues that it is time for American courts to redress prison conditions and ensure that when we send someone to prison, we respect and protect their constitutional rights.

I Am for States’ Rights but Only in California, Massachusetts, New York….

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the Texas Supreme Court has consistently advanced a “mean-spirited” version of federalism that is the antithesis of what the Founders wanted. Professor Sarat points out that the mean-spiritedness was on display when the Texas legislature enacted S.B. 8, which does not allow legal abortions in cases of rape or incest, and when the state supreme court upheld the enforcement of that law.

Picking Your Own Poison and Capital Defense Lawyers’ Ethical Quandary

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes the ethical quandary capital defense lawyers face when they have to, under the Supreme Court’s current methods of execution jurisprudence, suggest an alternative readily available method to execute their clients. Professor Sarat argues that the only way to eliminate this ethical quandary is to end the practice altogether, particularly in light of the current Court’s apparent hostility to arguments of death row inmates.

“Hear No Evil, See No Evil,” State Responses to Botched Executions and the Danger of Indifference

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that many death penalty states have developed coordinated strategies of reassuring the public and denying any wrongdoing when an execution goes wrong. Professor Sarat points out that state officials demonstrate an indifference to an inmate’s evident distress and use empty, bureaucratic language to cover their tracks and avoid confronting the grim reality of what they are doing.

Will Trump’s Narcissism Save the Republican Party and America?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that former President Donald Trump’s narcissism and obsessive, compulsive refusal to talk about anything other than the 2020 election is beginning to turn off even some of his longtime allies. Professor Sarat argues that while Trump’s waning popularity might be bad for him and his most ardent supporters, it might save the Republican Party and the United States from Trump himself.

Why Conservatives Are Seeing the Light on Capital Punishment and Why They Should

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes recent developments in Utah and Ohio, where conservative legislators have introduced bills that would end capital punishment in those states. Professor Sarat explains why, although conservatives have historically favored capital punishment, opposing it is more consistent with other conservative values, like opposing abortion.

Alabama’s Execution of Matthew Reeves Signals Methods of Execution Mess in the U.S.

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow Alabama to execute Matthew Reeves, an intellectually disabled death row inmate, by lethal injection rather than by his preferred method of nitrogen hypoxia. Professor Sarat explains why giving death row inmates a choice over their “preferred” method of execution is perverse and argues that the words “humane” and “execution” do not belong in the same sentence, no matter what method is used.

The Supreme Court’s Stealth Attack on Expertise Helps Pave the Way for Authoritarianism

Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut point out that in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Department of Labor, the conservative majority continues the right-wing assault on knowledge and expertise. Professor Sarat and Mr. Aftergut argue that the conservative attack on regulatory agencies and the expertise they represent is a classic indicator of creeping totalitarianism—the blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction.

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.