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.
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.
Cornell professor Joseph Margulies reflects on the ethical and legal dilemmas faced by lawyers representing death row inmates who choose to end their appeals and face execution, drawing on his own experience resisting a client’s choice to be executed, driven by the belief that the conviction was unjust and the death row conditions were inhumane. Professor Margulies grapples with the complexities of upholding the law, respecting client autonomy, and questioning whether intervening in a client’s decision to volunteer for execution is always the right course of action.
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.
UC Davis Law professor Vikram David Amar comments on the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent decision invalidating the state’s legislative district lines based on its finding that they were unconstitutional due to non-contiguous territories, a decision criticized by conservatives as partisan. Professor Amar points out that this ruling, focused only on state legislative districts, does not directly implicate the “Independent State Legislature” theory discussed in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Moore v. Harper case, as it pertains to state, not federal, elections. Furthermore, Professor Amar argues that the decision’s compliance with straightforward state constitutional text suggests federal courts are unlikely to find it violates due process or republican government principles, illustrating the limited role of federal oversight in state court interpretations of state law post-Moore.
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.
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.
University of Pennsylvania professor Marci A. Hamilton discusses the transformation of religious liberty in the United States into a force that can harm others, critiquing the misuse of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the rise of radical religious liberty law. Professor Hamilton argues that while religious liberty includes the absolute right to believe and speak about one's religion, it should not extend to conduct that harms others, warning against the dangerous trend of using religious liberty as a weapon against marginalized groups and advocating for a return to the original principles of the First Amendment.
In this second of a series of columns, UC Davis Law professor Vikram David Amar responds to arguments against disqualifying Donald Trump from presidential election ballots under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, focusing on Ross Douthat’s assertion in a New York Times essay that such disqualification is antidemocratic. Professor Amar argues that enforcing constitutional provisions, including Section 3, is not antidemocratic as it reflects the will of the people, and he emphasizes that the real question is whether the requirements of Section 3 have been met in Trump’s case.
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.
UC Davis Law professor Vikram David Amar points out flaws in Professor Larry Lessig’s argument in Slate regarding the inapplicability of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to Donald Trump, emphasizing that the presidency is indeed an “office under the United States” and therefore covered by Section 3. Professor Amar highlights Professor Lessig’s failure to address this key point and questions why Professor Lessig’s essay overlooks the fact that federal legislators are not considered officers under the United States, a crucial distinction in constitutional law.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf points out that the U.S. Supreme Court faces critical decisions in two cases involving former President Donald Trump: one regarding his claim of absolute immunity against charges for his role in attempting to overturn the 2020 election, and the other concerning his eligibility for the Presidency under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Professor Dorf argues that despite Trump’s legal team arguing for more time due to the complexity of the immunity case, the Court should expedite its review in both cases, given the urgency of presidential primaries and the weak nature of Trump’s claims, especially against the well-founded argument that he is ineligible under the Fourteenth Amendment due to insurrectionist activities.
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.
NYU Law professor Samuel Estreicher defends Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas, arguing that its actions in Gaza comply with international humanitarian law, particularly the principles of military necessity, distinction, and proportionality. Professor Estreicher refutes claims that Israel is an “occupying power” in Gaza and that the right of self-defense does not apply to non-state actors like Hamas, comparing Israel’s military actions to those of the U.S. against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
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.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear a case challenging Washington State’s ban on conversion therapy, Tingley v. Ferguson, and specifically the implications of the dissent from Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Professor Dorf explains that their dissenting opinion demonstrates their willingness to invalidate such bans based on free speech, a stance that could undermine the regulation of medical practices. Professor Dorf points out that while a circuit split exists on the legality of conversion therapy bans, the broader concern is the potential impact of the Justices’ views on medical regulation, including recent decisions regarding access to abortion medication like mifepristone.
UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin recounts her experience reading At the ALTAR of the Appellate Gods: Arguing before the US Supreme Court by Lisa Sarnoff Gochman. Amidst a tragic backdrop of recent violence at UNLV, Professor Griffin reflects on Gochman’s book, which provides a human perspective on appellate law through her experience arguing in the notable Supreme Court case, Apprendi v. New Jersey. As Professor Griffin describes, Gochman’s narrative highlights the challenges and intricacies of presenting a case before the Supreme Court, offering insights into the legal process and the personal journey of an appellate lawyer.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen reflects on the legacy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, highlighting her respect for judicial restraint and precedent, particularly in cases regarding reproductive rights. Contrasting O’Connor’s approach with the current Supreme Court's inclination influenced by the Federalist Society, Ms. Rikleen suggests that the Court’s current Justices could benefit from O’Connor’s example of independence and commitment to precedent. She also discusses the shift in the Court’s composition and ideology following O’Connor's retirement, noting the increasing influence of the Federalist Society in shaping a judiciary more ideologically driven and less bound by precedent, as exemplified by recent decisions like the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
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.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the pending U.S. Supreme Court case SEC v. Jarkesy, which questions the constitutionality of administrative law judges (ALJs) in the SEC and their role in enforcing securities laws. While Professor Dorf believes the Court should reject all three constitutional challenges presented in the case, he suggests that if the Court does rule against the government, the least disruptive outcome would be based on the removal issue rather than the Seventh Amendment or nondelegation claims.