Current Weather
The Spy FM

Sotomayor’s Dissent Highlights Concerns Over Elected Judges

Filed by KOSU News in Politics.
November 19, 2013

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in a case this week involving the death penalty in Alabama was not aimed at public opinion, but it could be exhibit A for why the nation’s judiciary is falling in the public’s estimation.

Sotomayor wrote a 12-page dissent when her colleagues refused to review the state’s law that allows judges to overrule jury decisions on whether a defendant should be executed. She called it “an outlier” that might contradict the Constitution.

The Alabama case was concerned with Mario Dion Woodward, who was convicted of murder in 2008. The prosecution asked for the death penalty, but the jury voted 8-to-4 against it — finding that the state-asserted aggravating circumstances did not warrant capital punishment.

In almost every other state, the jury’s decision would have been final — but not in Alabama. In Woodward’s case, the trial judge overruled the jury and imposed the death penalty anyway, as the law permits.

As Sotomayor went on to point out, since Alabama adopted its current statute in the early 1980s, judges have overridden the jury’s decision and imposed the death penalty in 95 cases, while decreasing the sentence to life imprisonment without parole in just 9 cases.

What is more, Alabama is the only state whose judges have used a judicial-override sentencing statute in this way in the past decade. Florida and Delaware have similar statutes. In the early 2000s only one Delaware judge imposed a death sentence. That decision was appealed and reduced to a life sentence.

The worst part – according to Sotomayor – is the reason this only happens in Alabama. “The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence,” she wrote, is that “Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”

Those “electoral pressures,” she wrote, will lead to “curious and potentially arbitrary outcomes.” And the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, the Court has held, offends the Eighth Amendment.

Sotomayor is not the only one who might harbor concerns about elected judges. Thirty-eight states elect their Supreme Court judges, and in a national poll released last month by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center, 70 percent of respondents felt that it was a very serious problem when an elected judge has received a contribution from an “individual, attorney, business, or interest group” presenting a case before them. In fact, 92 percent of respondents felt that judges should step aside in such cases.

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has consistently spoken out against judicial elections. Speaking at Fordham Law School in 2008, she said that “you’re not going to get fair and impartial judges” if they are elected, and noted that “no other nation in the world” holds judicial elections. In the Justice at Stake poll, respondents ranked impartiality and fairness as the second and fourth most important qualities in judges (“ethical” was first and “nonpartisan” third).

Alabama judges’ record on the death penalty may well undermine belief in their impartiality and fairness, showing that they are yielding to electoral pressure rather than simply applying the law.

And, according to Sotomayor, their decisions and comments show that they are using the death penalty as an electoral tool, rather than as “an expression of society’s moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct.” Only Justice Stephen Breyer joined portions of Sotomayor’s dissent. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

Leave a Reply

9AM to 10AM Car Talk

Car Talk

Listen Live Now!

10AM to 11AM Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

Peter Sagal and Carl Kasell host the weekly NPR News quiz show alongside some of the best and brightest news and entertainment personalities.

View the program guide!

11AM to 12PM This American Life

This American Life

Take in a slice of Americana with critically acclaimed host Ira Glass on "This American Life." Each week he picks a theme, then gives his writers and performers the freedom to weave real stories from real people around that theme in a manner they find most engaging.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center