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The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the case of Baze v. Rees, which asks the Justices to examine the constitutionality of Kentucky’s lethal injection methodology. In this latest PENNumbra Debate Professors Alison J. Nathan, of Fordham University, and Douglas A. Berman, of The Ohio State University, tease out the legal, political, and practical issues that the Court faces as it addresses Baze.
In her Opening, Professor Nathan critiques the irrationality of the three-formula lethal injection procedure used by Kentucky and many other states. Professor Nathan writes that “lethal injection as pervasively practiced in the United States today is the result of a historical accident, not scientifically informed deliberation.” She contends that the sort of democratic reform that has been the catalyst for legislative changes in execution procedures in the past has been stymied by “lethal injection’s peculiar history, attendant secrecy, and protocol involving the use of [a] pain-masking paralytic drug.” She concludes by arguing that “[i]n this context of non-transparency, it is distinctly the role and responsibility of the judiciary, led by the Supreme Court, to scrutinize the practice of lethal injection and its history.”
Professor Berman agrees that “the development and administration of lethal injection protocols have been haphazard and sloppy.” However, his concern is principally focused on why the lack of a democratic reform movement has failed to raise the consciousness of the nation. He contends that “three critical practical and political realities” explain the absence of a national backlash: in sum, 1) no human-administered death penalty system can be perfect; 2) few Americans care to make a perfect system; and 3) most Americans are “blissfully ignorant” of any such “imperfections.” Through his “realpolitik” lenses, Professor Berman remains skeptical that the Justices will be able to rise above “the broader practical and political realities that surround the modern administration of capital punishment [and help] ensure that the machinations of death . . . persist.”
As always, please click on the PENNumbra link to read previous Responses and Debates, or to check out pdfs of the Penn Law Review‘s print edition articles.