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March 21, 2023

"After McCleskey"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Robert Tsai recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In the 1987 decision, McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court rejected a black death row inmate’s argument that significant racial disparities in the administration of Georgia’s capital punishment laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  In brushing aside the most sophisticated empirical study of a state’s capital practices to date, that ruling seemingly slammed the door on structural inequality claims against the criminal justice system.  Most accounts of the case end after noting the ruling’s incompatibility with more robust theories of equality and meditating on the deep sense of demoralization felt by social justice advocates.  One might be forgiven for assuming that defense lawyers abandoned structural inequality claims and the use of quantitative evidence in capital cases altogether.

But that would be wrong and incomplete.  For the first time, this Article recounts an unusual chapter of the fallout from the McCleskey litigation, focusing on the litigation and social activism in the wake of that decision.  It draws on interviews with anti-death penalty lawyers working for or allied with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Georgia, including Stephen Bright, Ruth Friedman, Bryan Stevenson, and Clive Stafford Smith.  It is also based on archival research into their case files.  Drawing from these resources, this Article shows how a subset of cause lawyers in the late 1980’s and early 90’s had a remarkable reaction to that demoralizing ruling: they engaged in a distinctive form of “rebellious localism.”  Instead of forsaking structural equality claims, they doubled down on them.  Rather than make peace with what they believed to be an unjust ruling, they sought to subvert it.  They also scrambled to formulate reliable quantitative evidence of intentional discrimination.  Instead of accepting existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, they went after prosecutors and state court judges to expose how racial minorities and poor people wound up on death row more often than their white, wealthier counterparts.

Understanding this untold episode of legal history teaches us about the limits of judicial control over constitutional lawmaking, the unanticipated consequences of trying to insulate the legal order from accountability, and the possibilities for keeping clients alive and earning pro-equality victories when political conditions are inhospitable.  For those who pay attention, there are lessons that might humble the most ideologically committed judges and inspire reformers who confront challenging legal circumstances.

March 21, 2023 at 02:37 PM | Permalink


I don't even need to read this to see how stupid it is. DP decisions are made on the county level. So aggregating across the state doesn't work.

Also, do they even bother to take into account the fact that murderers aren't distributed evenly by population. non-Hispanic whites are overrepresented in terms of those actually executed when you take into account the distribution of murderers.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 21, 2023 5:29:49 PM

"...there are lessons that might humble the most ideologically committed judges and inspire reformers who confront challenging legal circumstances."

I thought judges were not supposed to be "ideologically committed," but instead committed to following the law regardless of ideology. I'm so behind the times! And as to "challenging legal circumstances," well, yes. And what would those be? First, that the DP is constitutional, as SCOTUS has repeatedly held, and second, that it remains supported by a clear majority of the public.

Then there are the facts that federalist correctly notes, but facts are so.......well.......old fashioned. Better just to shout down federal judges, like the liberal Nazis at Stanford Law School.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 21, 2023 6:59:43 PM

A palate cleanser for today: https://bearingarms.com/camedwards/2023/03/21/murder-charges-dropped-against-north-carolina-man-self-defense-cited-by-prosecutors-n68665

Posted by: federalist | Mar 22, 2023 9:39:43 AM

Do we really believe that the Justices did not bring their ideological principles with them to the Supreme Court and that those principles do not influence their rulings? Just a question.

Posted by: Eric A. Hicks | Mar 22, 2023 11:20:53 AM

Try not to faint, but I think you and the author agree that "ideologically committed judges" is a smear. I took the point to be more of a call for open mindedness.

McCleskey held that it didn't matter what the stats show. So, as with the critiques of the study in McCleskey, even if your concerns were on point, they are, per McCleskey, beside the point.

Posted by: John | Mar 22, 2023 6:17:06 PM

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