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
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.

Prosecuting Trump May Be Right but Unwise

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why, even if there is a strong legal case for prosecuting former president Donald Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection, doing so may not be the wisest thing to do. Professor Sarat suggests that the Attorney General can and should put together a record for history to judge, but going forward with even a well-grounded prosecution of Trump would almost certainly turn him into a martyr and bring this country ever closer to the abyss it is already fast approaching.

It Is Not Too Early to Prepare for Life After the Abolition of Capital Punishment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes what death penalty abolitionists must do even as capital punishment in the United States wanes in popularity and use. Professor Sarat calls upon such advocates to invest time and resources in tracking and learning lessons from what has happened after states abolished the death penalty over the last 15 years.

American Law’s Worst Moment(s), 2021

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on American law’s worst moment(s) in 2021, noting that this year it was not a single moment but a series of events beginning with the January 6 insurrection. Professor Sarat argues that what followed the insurrection and ratified it demonstrate that Trump and his cronies are lining this country up for an unprecedented constitutional crisis in 2024, and Democrats have done nothing to resist the slow-moving coup.

After Roe, The Coming Fight to End All Abortions Everywhere

Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments that gives the Court an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade and related cases recognizing a constitutional right to abortion. Sarat and Aftergut point out that if the Court abandons Roe, that will ultimately spell the end of abortion rights in all states.

Why California Should Abolish Its Death Penalty and Why It Matters What That State Does

Amherst professor Austin Sarat calls upon California Governor Gavin Newsom to ask the state legislature to end capital punishment. Professor Sarat explains why this route is superior to the direct democracy route (which failed in both 2012 and 2016) and why it’s so important that California abolish the death penalty.

Kyle Rittenhouse, SB8 and the Dangerous Legalization of Vigilante Justice

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why the not guilty verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse sends a powerful message condoning vigilantism, particularly when coupled with the Texas law that authorizes private enforcement of its extreme prohibitions on abortion. Professor Sarat argues that vigilantism, including these instances, has historically taken root in times of social, cultural, and political transition, and in places with high levels of cultural diversity and institutional instability

Botched Executions Are a Feature, Not a Bug, in America’s Death Penalty System

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat points out that botched executions are commonplace in the United States and that their frequency has only increased during the last decade as states have experimented with different lethal injection drugs and drug combinations. Professor Sarat critiques the way journalists tend to cover these botched executions and argues that civil society needs to view these errors as routine, rather than as mistakes. The only way to break this pattern, he argues, is to stop altogether the practice of using death as a punishment.

Alito, Texas Abortion and the Shadow Docket: Déjà vu All Over Again?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on the U.S. Supreme Court’s increasing tendency to decide high-profile and far-reaching cases via its “shadow docket”—without oral argument or full briefing. Professor Sarat and Mr. Aftergut point out that recent remarks by Justice Samuel Alito reinforce the view that the Court has a partisan agenda that is increasingly out of step with the beliefs and values of the American people.