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
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.

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.