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Unpublished Paper
Deciding Death
ExpressO (2007)
  • Corinna Lain
Abstract

When the Supreme Court decides death, how much does law matter? Scholars long have lamented the majoritarian nature of the Court’s Eighth Amendment “evolving standards of decency” doctrine, but a close look at the Court’s decisions in this area shows that their criticism misses the mark. Doctrine does not matter one whit in the Supreme Court’s “evolving standards” cases, but where majoritarian doctrine does not constrain the Court’s decision-making, other majoritarian forces do. To make this point, I first examine three of the Supreme Court’s most prominent (and in two cases, most recent) “evolving standards” decisions, along with the decisions they implicitly or explicitly overruled. In each set of cases, I attack the doctrinal justification for the Court’s change of position, offering larger historical context as a more compelling, nondoctrinal explanation for why those cases came out the way they did. I then use political science models of Supreme Court decision-making to explain how broader social and political forces push the Court towards majoritarian death penalty rulings for reasons wholly independent of majoritarian death penalty doctrine. Finally, I bring the analysis full circle by showing how broader sociopolitical forces even led to the development of the “evolving standards” doctrine, turning current death penalty scholarship on its head. As I show, problematic doctrine is not to blame for majoritarian influences; rather, majoritarian influences are to blame for problematic doctrine. In the end, the real obstacle to countermajoritarian decision-making is not doctrine, but the inherently majoritarian nature of the Supreme Court itself.

Keywords
  • Death Penalty
Disciplines
Publication Date
March, 2007
Citation Information
Corinna Lain. "Deciding Death" ExpressO (2007)
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/corinna_lain/1/