The following op-ed, The Supreme Court is Wrong on the Death Penalty, written by Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe ’66, was published in the Wall Street Journal on July 31, 2008.

It’s not often that the U.S. Supreme Court is asked by a state and the federal government to reconsider a case it has just handed down because it missed key evidence.

But that is what is happening now in Kennedy v. Louisiana. In that case, the court ruled in late June that Louisiana could not execute someone convicted of violently raping a child. Dividing along familiar 5-4 lines, the court held, speaking through Justice Anthony Kennedy, that the death penalty must be reserved for killers and traitors. To apply it to others, including the most reprehensible violators of young children, would constitute a “cruel and unusual punishment” violating the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Emphasizing the evolving character of what constitutes an “unusual” if not an unduly “cruel” punishment, the court rested its condemnation of executing the rapists of children largely on what it described as a trend away from the use of death to punish such crimes both here and abroad.

But there was a problem with the court’s understanding of the basic facts. It failed to take into account — because nobody involved in the case had noticed — that in 2006 no less an authority than Congress, in the National Defense Authorization Act, had prescribed capital punishment as a penalty available for the rape of a child by someone in the military.

Defenders of the court’s decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana would have it ignore that embarrassing wrinkle by treating the military as a parallel universe that simply does not intersect civilian justice on the plane of constitutional principle. But a court searching for universal principles of justice in the name of the Eighth Amendment would be hard pressed to accept that view of the military/civilian distinction. Particularly when the court’s division tracks the usual liberal/conservative divide, its credibility depends on both candor and correctness when it comes to the factual predicates of its rulings.

Whatever one’s view of the death penalty — and I have long expressed misgivings on both its wisdom and its constitutionality — it’s important that the inequities and inequalities in its administration be minimized. Commitment to that principle, not a rush to the center, lay behind Barack Obama’s disagreement with the court’s ruling in this case even before the 2006 federal death penalty provision came to public attention.

Continue reading “The Supreme Court is Wrong on the Death Penalty.”

Mr. Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Invisible Constitution” (Oxford Press).