Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Scalia's Sting: The Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roper v. Simmons yesterday, ruling 5 to 4 that it is unconstitutional to sentence anyone to death for a crime he or she committed under the age of 18.

In concluding that the death penalty for minors is "cruel and unusual punishment" within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment, the court cited a "national consensus" against the practice—a claim that sent the increasingly acerbic Justice Scalia into a tizzy from which even the Amish weren't left unscathed:

Consulting States that bar the death penalty concerning the necessity of making an exception to the penalty for offenders under 18 is rather like including old-order Amishmen in a consumer-preference poll on the electric car. Of course they don’t like it, but that sheds no light whatever on the point at issue. That 12 States favor no executions says something about consensus against the death penalty, but nothing, absolutely nothing, about consensus that offenders under 18 deserve special immunity from such a penalty.

In repealing the death penalty, those 12 States considered none of the factors that the Court puts forth as determinative of the issue before us today—lower culpability of the young, inherent recklessness, lack of capacity for considered judgment, etc. What might be relevant, perhaps, is how many of those States permit 16- and 17-year old offenders to be treated as adults with respect to noncapital offenses. (They all do; indeed, some even require that juveniles as young as 14 be tried as adults if they are charged with murder.) The attempt by the Court to turn its remarkable minority consensus into a faux majority by counting Amishmen is an act of nomological desperation.

Scalia makes a fine point as a matter of constitutional law. But in articulating it he also calls attention to why, despite his deeply-held Roman Catholic faith, those who mistake him for a pawn of the Pope are simply wrong. The charge may hold water when it comes to anything that has to do with homosexuality (see, e.g., Scalia's derisive discussion of the "so-called homosexual agenda" in his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas). But when it comes to capital punishment, at least, Scalia seems all-to-willing to flaunt the teachings of John Paul II, whose 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) explained:

On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society...

If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person....

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