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
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.

Latest on the MAGA Republican Agenda: Intimidate Prosecutors and Politicize Prosecution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the number of bills recently introduced in many red states to curb prosecutorial discretion when it is exercised in ways that do not conform to their tough-on-crime agenda. Professor Sarat argues that prosecutorial discretion is an indispensable component of a society governed by laws, and that these bills violate the separation of powers, threaten to politicize prosecution, and, in so doing, undermine the rule of law.

When Will Oklahoma Abolish the Death Penalty?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent changes in Oklahoma that suggest, perhaps surprisingly, that the state may be poised to abolish the death penalty. Professor Sarat observes that the 2022 election results, the objections of religious leaders, doubts among conservative politicians, and declining public support may signal a tide change in a state that has long been a leader in using death as a punishment.

Arizona Case May Change the National Conversation About Race and Capital Punishment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on two cases currently working their way through the Arizona court system, in which defense lawyers from the Capital Unit of the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender are raising innovative arguments based on the systemic racism in all aspects of American life. Professor Sarat argues that these carefully crafted and extensively documented motions call on judges to confront the reality of America’s racist past and continuing institutional racism before allowing the government to carry out any more “legal lynchings.”

Alabama’s Latest Steps to Use Nitrogen Hypoxia Recapitulate the Failed Promise of Humane Execution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on recent news that Arkansas was “close” to completing the protocol needed to carry out executions by nitrogen hypoxia. Professor Sarat points out that nearly every method of execution was touted as “humane” when it was first introduced, but as history has proven time and time again, there is no such thing as a foolproof or humane execution.

Donald Trump Wants to Use the Firing Squad, Mass Executions, and Videos to Turn Executions Into Reality TV

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on recent reporting that Donald Trump wants to use the firing squad, mass executions, and videos to heighten the drama of capital punishment. Professor Sarat argues that what Trump says about executions reveals the depth of his fascination with ghoulish things and that his latest death penalty musings offer a frightening reminder of the cruelty he would unleash if he is returned to the Oval Office.

Alabama Needs to Change Course and Clean Up Its Death Penalty Mess

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent petition by 170 faith leaders in Alabama asking Governor Kay Ivey to create an independent commission to study and address Alabama’s death penalty problems. Professor Sarat describes the recent botched executions in that state and laments that their eloquent appeal seems likely to fall on deaf ears in a state that is not yet ready to clean up its death penalty mess.

South Carolina Tries to Ramp Up Secrecy in a Frantic Effort to Restart Executions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the many attempts by South Carolina to resume executions in that state. Professor Sarat describes the recent history of capital punishment in that state and notes that a recent decision by the South Carolina supreme court put on hold a case involving death row inmates’ challenge to the state’s attempt to use the electric chair and the firing squad.

Do We Really Need the Third Amendment? Or What Can and Should We Do About Constitutional Vestiges

Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out the obsolescence of the Third Amendment and considers how we should regard that and other constitutional provisions that no longer serve the era in which we live. Professor Sarat argues that the Supreme Court has the unique authority to help the Constitution adapt to changing times, but the fascination of the Court’s current conservative majority with originalism threatens that adaptive capacity.

Arizona Takes a Step Toward Abolishing the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how Arizona has recently taken a small but significant step toward abolishing the death penalty, with actions by Governor Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes. Professor Sarat points out that Hobbs’s executive order calling for an independent commissioner to review certain aspects of the death penalty process in that state will shed light on a procedure that thrives only in darkness and secrecy.

What Ann Coulter Doesn’t Know and Doesn’t Want Her Readers to Know About Capital Punishment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on an opinion piece by ultra-conservative propagandist Ann Coulter in which Coulter is trying to revive America’s death penalty based on untruths and half-truths. Professor Sarat explains why the information Coulter cites is at best misleading and at times completely false, and he argues that any outrage should be directed at the death penalty itself, which is rife with problems at every stage.

What Role, If Any, Should Hatred Play in the Justice Department’s Investigation of Donald Trump?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on remarks by former President Donald Trump that Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to supervise the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump, is motivated by hatred of Trump. Professor Sarat points out that Trump’s perception that those who oppose him hate him epitomizes narcissism and that psychologists have characterized Trump as personalizing every conflict and seeing every political relationship as transactional.

Arizona Is a New Death Penalty Battleground State

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that Arizona’s new attorney general—Kris Mayes—should now seize her opportunity to make good on her promise to put a pause on all executions in that state. Professor Sarat describes Arizona’s recent spate of botched executions and calls upon Mayes to support a death-row inmate’s withdrawal of his request be executed, thereby making Arizona the latest state to confront the troubling issues that have plagued the death penalty across the country.

When the Time Comes, I’d Like to Die on My Own Terms—But the Massachusetts Supreme Court Won’t Let Me

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s refusal to recognize a constitutional right to medical aid in dying. Professor Sarat describes the basis of that decision and explains why state courts should recognize that right based on their own state constitutions.

As America’s Death Penalty Declines, Let’s Not Lose Sight of the Glaring Injustices That Remain

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on capital punishment in 2022, pointing out that while it has continued its decades-long decline, it is still plagued with serious injustices. Professor Sarat argues that as abolitionists litigate to stop death sentences and executions, we must remember that the fight must ultimately be won in the political arena rather than only in the courts.

It is Time for the Biden Administration to Join the Rest of the World in Moving Against the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the Biden administration should join the rest of the world in officially opposing the death penalty by supporting the U.N. General Assembly’s resolution establishing a moratorium on executions. Professor Sarat points out that while supporting the resolution would not force the federal or state governments to change the status quo, it would put this country on record as committed to ending the death penalty—a particularly important accomplishment for a President who ran as an abolitionist.