POLITICS

Could A Supreme Court Justice Become An Anti-Death Penalty Activist?

04/08/2014 09:47 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

John Paul Stevens' latest book gives some insight into how one of the longest-serving Supreme Court Justices could evolve on one of the most sensitive policies out there.

A Monday piece in The Atlantic points to the death penalty in particular, and how Stevens' new book -- “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution" -- shines a bright light on his change of heart toward the policy.

In the book, Stevens argues for adding a simple phrase to the Eighth Amendment, which would modify it to say: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments such as the death penalty inflicted.

Via The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen:

It took Justice Stevens over 30 years—from his ascension to the Supreme Court in 1975 to 2008—to reach this point. And it has taken him another six years, from 2008 to 2014, to fully become the advocate for reform that he never was on the Court. If I were Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, I would invite Justice Stevens today to testify on Capitol Hill about the death penalty—to bear witness, expert witness, to its arbitrary nature.

This is not the first emergence of Stevens' candor surrounding his death penalty views. Back in 2011, he sat down with the Huffington Post to discuss his "Five Chiefs" memoir, explaining why his mid-1970s views on the death penalty had changed.

It's clear that on both issues, Stevens' first year on the bench during the 1975-'76 term made a lasting impression on him. In 1976, he, along with Justices Potter Stewart and Lewis Powell, provided the controlling opinion for the cases that re-instituted the death penalty in the United States after the Court struck down all capital punishment laws four years earlier.

According to Stevens, his vote to reinstate the death penalty was based on his belief that the states "had narrowed the category of death-eligible offenses and would enforce procedures that would minimize the risk of error and the risk that the race of the defendant or the race of the victim would play a role in the sentencing decision."

But after three decades of watching his increasingly conservative colleagues approve laws that abrogated his hope for a fairer process, he has come to see the death penalty as "pointless and needless."

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