Project 21 New Visions

 

Has the U.S. Supreme Court Lost Its Collective Mind?


by Darryn "Dutch" Martin

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that executing prisoners who committed capital crimes such as murder as minors violates the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment."

While this ruling is heinous in itself, the rationale used by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in arriving at their majority conclusion is more disturbing.

When he was just 17 years old, Christopher Simmons told people he "wanted to murder someone." As described by Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the Roper v. Simmons decision, that's just what he did:

At the age of 17, when he was still a junior in high school, Christopher Simmons... committed murder... There is little doubt that Simmons was the instigator of the crime. Before its commission, Simmons said he wanted to murder someone. In chilling, callous terms he talked about his plan with his friends... Simmons proposed to commit burglary and murder by breaking and entering, tying up a victim and throwing the victim off a bridge. Simmons assured his friends they could "get away with it" because they were minors.

Simmons and 15-year-old Charles Benjamin broke into the St. Louis home of Shirley Crook. According to court papers, the two put Crook in her minivan and drove her to a bridge over the Meramac River. They covered her face in duct tape and threw her from the bridge. She drowned. Simmons was sentenced to death by a state court, but the sentence was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Missouri.

The High Court's decision is troubling on several fronts. For one thing, Justice Kennedy wrote that "Juveniles are less mature than adults and, no matter how heinous their crimes, they are not among 'the worst offenders' who deserve to die." Tell that to Shirley Crook's grieving family.

What else did the majority conclude? "To implement this framework," wrote Justice Kennedy, "we have established the propriety and affirmed the necessity of referring to 'the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society' to determine which punishments are so disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual."

This rationale reeks of moral relativism. Instead of upholding and defending the Constitution, something these justices swore an oath to do, the justices are essentially imposing their own opinions on society as a whole. As columnist David Limbaugh puts it, it is "as if [the ruling] is the final arbiter not just of the law, but our moral standards."

In 18 of 38 states - 47 percent of states that permit capital punishment - laws ban the execution of offenders under age 18. The majority justices call this a "national consensus." Justice Antonin Scalia put it best in his dissent: "Words have no meaning if the views of less than 50 percent of death penalty States can constitute a national consensus. Our previous cases have required overwhelming opposition to a challenged practice, generally over a long period of time."

Arguably the most outrageous rationale of the High Court's majority decision is its insistence in relying on international laws and legal rulings. Justice Kennedy writes that the Court can and should consider "the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty." This includes the opposition of "leading members of the Western European community."

The "overwhelming weight" of international opinion? "Respected and significant confirmation" of the majority's conclusions? Has the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court lost its mind?

Columnist Debra Saunders points out that European Union nations not only oppose capital punishment but also oppose life without parole and deliver notoriously short sentences for heinous crimes. One example is a German court sentencing a man who killed and cannibalized another man (actually videotaping his "meal") to only eight-and-a-half years in prison. He is expected to walk free after only five years.

If this is the direction our Supreme Court is headed, it would be wise to heed Saunders' words: "Be afraid, America. Be very afraid." It makes President Bush's pledge that he will appoint justices who will interpret the literal meaning of the Constitution all that more important for our future.


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Darryn "Dutch" Martin is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.


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