Opinion column: Flawed reasoning

By Elie Dvorin

The Supreme Court has spoken and the death penalty is on its way out. It hasn’t been banned as of yet, but the execution of the mentally retarded and juveniles has been declared unconstitutional, further limiting the scope of the death penalty. Last week, the Court’s ruling in Simmons v. Roper that 16 and 17-year-olds were exempt from the death penalty, elicited a sigh of relief from the 70 plus murderers on death row in the United States that were spared.

Although I disagree with this ruling, the major problem lies in the absurd reasoning the majority used to justify their opinion. For one, almost every case the Court has decided concerning the death penalty has addressed the debate concerning “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” That is, what the Court considers to be “cruel and unusual punishment” is contingent upon other facets of social change, or at least so say the more liberal justices on the Court. The framers of the Constitution did not intend for us to simply rewrite the Constitution based on some arbitrary and immeasurable standard.

In writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated, “When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” The proponents of this decision argue that juveniles have not reached a necessary level of maturity, implying a lesser amount of responsibility, and thus cannot be subject to “adult” punishments. If a juvenile who commits a murder is not fully responsible for his actions, how can one justify punishing him at all? If he didn’t know any better and can’t be held responsible, it seems awfully cruel to sentence him to prison for any length of time. As far as I’m concerned, when you commit adult crimes, you lose your legal protection as a juvenile. Sixteen and 17-year-olds know right from wrong, and any 16 or 17-year-old that hasn’t gone on a murdering spree is proof of that.

The media, in reporting this decision, never misses a moment to point out that the United States is the last nation in the world to disavow the death penalty for juveniles. Even countries like Iran and Cuba don’t execute, at least officially, their juvenile murderers. That’s fine, but irrelevant as far as the Court is concerned. At least one would think. After all, Supreme Court Justices are supposed to interpret the U.S. Constitution, not dabble in the domestic affairs of foreign countries. With a lack of respect for the Constitution, Kennedy writes “…the Court has referred to the laws of other countries and to international authorities as instructive for its interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.”

There is no reason the Court should ever be looking at another country to help determine the constitutionality of anything. If the Court wants to model our death penalty stance after nations like Iran, why stop there? Let’s revoke female drivers licenses and do away with our “innocent until proven guilty” mantra.

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Justice Scalia rightfully ripped into this ridiculous line of reasoning. He pointed out the fact that the Court doesn’t look at other countries for interpretive help with the First Amendment, yet it sees no problem doing so for the Eighth Amendment. After pointing out this inconsistency, he then rejected the idea of using foreign countries as benchmarks altogether.

Whether or not one disagrees with the end result of the Court’s ruling, it’s hard to justify the pathetic line of reasoning used to reach it. Usually, an activist court at least pretends that its ruling is rooted in the Constitution. If this line of reasoning prevails in other cases, the days of true Constitutional interpretation may be coming to an end, and so will the death penalty.