Originalist Approach to Capital Punishment Prevails (SCOTUS)

On 1 April 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4, in the case of Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S. (2019), that a person sentenced to death, who wants to challenge the method of execution on the grounds that it would cause excessive pain, must demonstrate that alternative methods of execution are available and would cause considerably less pain. Strictly speaking, the decision does not introduce any new rule to this area of law as this approach was already confirmed in Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7955, 576 U.S. (2015), however it is illustrative of the growing dominance of the originalist approach among the Court’s majority.

The case concerned Russell Bucklew who had been sentenced to death for raping his former girlfriend and murdering her lover. He challenged the use of lethal injection, as an execution method, on the grounds that his medical condition (cavernous hemangioma) could prevent the execution from being effective and cause him tremendous pain before death. The challenge was brought under the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting ‘cruel and unusual punishments’.

Since the 1970s, when dealing with challenges to the capital punishment under the 8th Amendment, the Supreme Court, in its majority opinions, has used a mixture of originalism and more liberal methods of interpretation to establish what form of punishment could be considered ‘cruel and unusual’, therefore forbidden. This has produced two sets of decisions. First, those decisions which declared the death penalty unconstitutional in certain circumstances, such as where used against mentally impaired perpetrators (Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002)), those who committed the relevant crime while still being a minor (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988)Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)) or where no death was caused (Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008)). Those decisions had the liberal members of the Court (previously: Justices Stevens, Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun; more recently: Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan) in the majority, usually with Justice Kennedy or O’Connor joining them, employing some progressive methods of interpretation such as an evolving standard of decency, ie, the idea that whether something is constitutional or not (here the death penalty or various methods of its execution) changes over time as social norms change. In those cases, conservative members of the Court (Alito, Roberts, Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, etc) were always in dissent.

The second set of decisions upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty as such and all methods of its execution (Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7955, 576 U.S.  (2015), Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008)) and minimised the number of procedural hurdles that need to be cleared before the penalty can be imposed (Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991); Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993)Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348 (2004)Oregon v. Guzek, 546 U.S. 517 (2006)Kansas v. Marsh, 548 U.S. 163 (2006)Leal Garcia v. Texas, 564 U.S. 940 (2011)). Those decisions were usually issued with a majority opinion based on a ‘soft’ form of originalism (sometimes with a trace of more liberal methods of interpretation) and were supported by Justices such as Kennedy, O’Connor, Alito and Chief Justices Roberts or Rehnquist. However, they were always accompanied by concurring opinions of Justices Thomas and Scalia employing what might be called ‘hard’ originalism. In those decisions, the liberal members of the Court were always in dissent.

The difference between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ originalism in capital punishment cases is accurately summarised by Justice Gorsuch in his majority opinion in Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S. (2019). The soft originalism:

“…teaches that where (as here) the question in dispute is whether the State’s chosen method of execution cruelly superadds pain to the death sentence, a prisoner must show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method of execution that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain and that the State has refused to adopt without a legitimate penological reason.” (p13)

On the other hand, under their ‘hard’ originalist approach to the 8th Amendment, Justice Scalia and Thomas:

“…argued that establishing cruelty consistent with the Eighth Amendment’s original meaning demands slightly more than the majority opinion there (or the Baze plurality opinion it followed) suggested. Instead of requiring an inmate to establish that a State has unreasonably refused to alter its method of execution to avoid a risk of unnecessary pain, Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia contended that an inmate must show that the State intended its method to inflict such pain.” (p14)

The case of Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S. (2019) is significant as it illustrates how the new majority of the Court (with two Justices appointed after 2016) gravitates towards ‘hard’ originalism. First of all, the very fact that the majority opinion was written by Justice Gorsuch, who is a proud originalist, sets the tone of this decision from the start. Secondly, in his opinion, Justice Gorsuch conducted a thorough analysis of the use of the capital punishment at the time of the adoption of the 8th Amendment as the only benchmark against which all decisions in this area must be taken (pp8-10). Then Justice Gorusch, speaking on behalf of the majority, confirmed the validity of old precedents upholding various methods of execution such as by firing squad (Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1879)) or using electric chair (In re Kemmler, 136 U. S. 436, 447 (1890)) (pp10-11). What is more, appreciating the difference in approach between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ originalists, Justice Gorsuch, and with him the majority, did not disapprove of the ‘hard’ originalist approach and instead concluded that:

“…revisiting that debate isn’t necessary here because, as we’ll see, the State was entitled to summary judgment in this case even under the more forgiving Baze-Glossip test [ie ‘soft’ originalist approach].”

Furthermore, even though Justice Thomas submitted his own concurring opinion, he dedicated it almost in its entirety to Justice Breyer’s dissent:

“I adhere to my view that “a method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment only if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain.” Baze v. Rees, 553 U. S. 35, 94 (2008) (opinion concurring in judgment); ante, at 14 [ie ‘hard’ originalist approach]. Because there is no evidence that Missouri designed its protocol to inflict pain on anyone, let alone Russell Bucklew, I would end the inquiry there. Nonetheless, I join the Court’s opinion in full because it correctly explains why Bucklew’s claim fails even under the Court’s precedents. I write separately to explain why Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion does not cast doubt on this standard…” (p1)

At the same time, Justice Kavanaugh, who also submitted his concurring opinion despite joining the majority, dedicated it solely to:

“…the Court’s additional holding that the alternative method of execution need not be authorized under current state law—a legal issue that had been
uncertain before today’s decision.” (p1)

Finally, what also makes Justice Gorusch’s opinion so significant is making it abundantly clear for future litigants that the 8th Amendment “forbids ‘cruel and unusual’ methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death”.