Cornell professor Joseph Margulies explores the journey of Rob Hildum, a former Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans and now a judge in Washington, D.C., who reflects on his past complicity in a system that disproportionately targets and harms Black individuals. Professor Margulies connects Hildum’s narrative with broader issues of systemic racism and police brutality, using recent cases like the killing of Ta’Kiya Young in Ohio to demonstrate that the unwillingness to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs and practices—like the appropriateness of “street justice”—perpetuates injustice.
In this second in a series of columns discussing the U.S. transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine, Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler discusses the domestic issues for the United States and international law issues for Cluster Ban Treaty members. Professor Wexler also addresses arguments about Ukraine losing the moral high ground and weakening the alliance.
Illinois Law professors Lesley Wexler and Jennifer Robbennolt comment on the recent decision by a judge declining to require an apology from the lawyers who submitted a brief with fictitious cases generated by ChatGPT. Professors Wexler and Robbennolt explain why the judge’s reasoning that “a compelled apology is not a sincere apology” assumes that a compelled apology has no value and fails to consider the other purposes apologies serve, such as acknowledgment to victims and affirmation of violated norms.
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.
Illinois law professor Lesley M. Wexler argues that based on the principle that justice needs to be justice for all, Ukraine should facilitate investigation of possible crimes by Ukrainians against Russians—not just crimes by Russians against Ukrainians. Professor Wexler contends that while U.S. and allied support for Ukraine must remain steadfast, encouraging Ukraine to make sure that all potential war crimes are investigated strengthens rather than weakens its moral authority.
Cornell professor Joseph Margulies argues that the only condition that justifies a prison sentence longer than 20 years is an ongoing threat to public safety, to be determined after that sentence has been served. Professor Margulies points out that, contrary to what many people think, individuals convicted of some of the most serious offenses, and who have already served exceptionally long terms, are often the people who are most apt to be valuable and contributing members of society, and who are best prepared for freedom.
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.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies observes that complaints about American life seem always to reinforce our ruthlessly unforgiving society. Professor Margulies describes one example of our tendency to reduce our most serious problems into simple but existential tribal grievances and another example of our inclination as a society to turn reflexively to punishment and eschew compassionate understanding that seeks to create a diverse community bound by shared values—both characteristic of an unforgiving society.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf reflects on what we might learn about criminal justice systems from FTX co-founder and former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried and his brief stay in a Bahamian prison. Professor Dorf points out that the prison where Bankman-Fried was detained has been described as “not fit for humanity”—not unlike many prisons in the United States and elsewhere. He argues that no one—regardless of wealth or social status—deserves that kind of suffering on top of their term of imprisonment.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Anthony Apanovitch—a man on Ohio’s death row who was exonerated yet whom the state still plans to execute. Professor Sarat describes Apanovitch’s unique situation and calls upon the Ohio Parole Board to recommend to Ohio’s governor that Apanovitch be pardoned and set free.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent report by the advocacy group, the Legal Defense Fund, noting that the total number of people on death row is 3.6% lower than it was a year ago, and 35% lower than it was in 2001 when the death row population was at its peak. However, Professor Sarat highlights the inhumanity of allowing even this reduced number of people—indeed, anyone—to languish for years or decades on death row.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies comments on two seemingly unrelated concerns expressed by readers: the policy of a local sheriff in Florida to publish mugshots of juveniles who have been charged with a felony, and the oppressively hot conditions of prison cells in Texas. Professor Margulies explains that both of these problems are products of an unforgiving society that insists on differentiating people into “us” versus “them.”
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent case in which the Oregon Court of Appeals held that Governor Kate Brown had the legal authority to grant mass clemency to more than 1,000 people convicted of crimes in her state. Professor Sarat points out that the decision joins a long line of others affirming the authority of governors and the President of the United States to grant clemency for “good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.”
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why, when asked how he can defend someone accused of horrible crimes, he no longer uses the response that most criminal defense lawyers use—that a lawyer doesn’t defend their client’s behavior but instead holds the government to its burden by zealously defending their client’s rights. Instead, Professor Margulies responds to that question that he is defending the client’s humanity against society’s impulse to reduce a defendant to their deed, imprisoning them in their past.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why social media is, by design, inimical to the idea of a forgiving society. He points out that, in general, we appreciate that a person makes choices not in a vacuum, but in the context of a combination of individual and societal factors, but social media eliminates this nuance and forces us to ignore what we ordinarily accept as the lesson of universal experience.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler comments on a case in which a Massachusetts court affirmed Harvard’s ownership over several slave daguerreotypes despite the horrific and now criminal conditions under which the pictures were taken. Professor Wexler argues that the double injustice of mistreating enslaved people and using them to prove a theory of their lesser-than status calls for application of transitional justice principles, not ordinary law.