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 Supreme Court Gets a New Opportunity to Oppose Racism in America’s Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the U.S. Supreme Court should grant review in Warren King’s death penalty case, which epitomizes the persistent racial biases in jury selection, especially in death penalty cases. Professor Sarat emphasizes the significance of the Batson v. Kentucky decision against race-based juror exclusion, critiques its inadequate enforcement, and argues that King’s case, marked by discriminatory jury selection, offers the Court a crucial opportunity to reinforce Batson and address racial prejudice in the legal system.

Massachusetts Supreme Court Takes an Important Step in the Battle to End Life Without Parole Sentences

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the movement against life without parole (LWOP) sentences in the United States, highlighting its flaws similar to those in the death penalty system, including racial disparities and the finality of judgment. Professor Sarat commends the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling against LWOP for offenders under 21, signaling a significant step towards reevaluating and potentially ending LWOP sentences, paralleling efforts against capital punishment.

The Incredible, Inconsistent, Incoherent Legal Arguments About Presidential Immunity Made by Donald Trump’s Lawyer

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that in Tuesday’s oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Donald Trump’s lawyer, John Sauer, contorted the Constitution’s language to claim presidents have absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for official acts, despite Trump’s impeachment lawyers previously stating presidents could face prosecution once leaving office. Professor Sarat points out that the appeals court judges appeared unconvinced by Sauer’s arguments, questioning how his broad immunity claim aligns with constitutional checks on presidential power.

Alabama’s Plan to Use Nitrogen Hypoxia to Kill Kenneth Smith Draws International Condemnation

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses international condemnation of Alabama’s planned execution of Kenneth Smith using nitrogen hypoxia, a method untested in executions—highlighting the broader issue of the United States’ isolated stance on capital punishment among constitutional democracies. Professor Sarat details Smith’s case, noting a previous failed execution attempt and the criticism from UN experts, the Catholic association Community of Sant’Egidio, and the European Union, all emphasizing the inhumanity and potential violation of international human rights laws in using such an experimental method for execution.

This Is a Good Time to Revisit Mitch McConnell’s Jurisprudence and Thoughts About Presidential Immunity

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses how Special Counsel Jack Smith’s recent filing regarding Donald Trump’s claim of presidential immunity is grounded in arguments previously made by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. McConnell, on the Senate floor in 2021, recognized Trump’s moral and practical responsibility for the January 6 events, pointed out that impeachment is not the only avenue for accountability, and acknowledged that Trump, as a private citizen, could be subject to criminal and civil litigation for his actions while in office.

The Road Not Taken: In 2023 Two Death Penalty States Offer Americans a Clear Choice

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the divergent paths of Florida and Ohio with respect to capital punishment in those states. Professor Sarat argues that it is time for America to make up its mind on the death penalty and either follow Ohio’s path toward a future without capital punishment, bringing this country into line with the community of nations, or else follow Florida’s example by expanding death sentences and executions.

Utah Judge Clears the Way for the First Firing Squad Execution in More Than a Decade

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Ralph Leroy Menzies, who has been on Utah’s death row for 35 years and holds conflicting views on his execution: he insists on being executed by firing squad, yet argues that this method constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under Utah’s constitution. Professor Sarat discusses Utah District Judge Coral Sanchez’s ruling that the state could proceed with the execution by firing squad, dismissing Menzies’s argument and granting the state significant discretion in carrying out the execution, even if it cannot guarantee a painless death.

If and When American Democracy Dies, Young People May Be to Blame

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that in the United States, democracy faces assaults from MAGA extremists led by Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, the illiberalism of the extreme left, with a notable shift in attitudes among young people who are less attached to democracy compared to older generations. Professor Sarat argues that the deepening political divide, along with the disillusionment of young people with democracy’s perceived failures in addressing issues like social justice and racial equality, poses a significant threat to the future of democratic governance in the country.

Alabama Acknowledges Dangers of Nitrogen Hypoxia Executions But Wants to Carry One Out Anyway

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses Alabama’s plan to use nitrogen hypoxia for the first time in the execution of Kenneth Smith, raising concerns about its safety and humanity. The method has prompted criticism, including a lawsuit by Reverend Jeff Hood, who argues that Alabama’s requirement for him to maintain distance during the execution infringes on religious liberties and creates a hostile environment for spiritual advisers. Professor Sarat highlights the untested nature of nitrogen hypoxia, its potential for causing seizures and suffocation, and the broader ethical issues surrounding the continued search for a “humane” method of execution.

Courts Need to Quickly Dispose of New Attempts to Legitimize the Imperial Presidency

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses former President Donald Trump’s expansive interpretation of presidential power, particularly his claim of immunity from criminal prosecution and civil liability for actions taken while in office. Trump’s views, which have been rejected by lower courts, are seen as an extreme version of the “Imperial Presidency” concept warned about by historian Arthur Schlesinger. Professor Sarat argues that courts should expedite and reject Trump’s appeals on these grounds, as granting such sweeping immunity claims would be disastrous for American democracy and the rule of law.

Supreme Court’s Hands-Off Attitude Contributes to Growing Public Doubts about the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report, which highlights both progress in abolishing capital punishment in the U.S. and the Supreme Court’s reluctance to ensure fairness in death penalty cases. Professor Sarat argues that the Supreme Court’s diminishing role in scrutinizing death penalty cases and its tolerance for injustice in these matters may be contributing to growing public skepticism about the death penalty, evidenced by increasing support among lawmakers and the public for its repeal or limitation.

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.