The Supreme Court this week denied cert in a case out of Alabama wherein a judge overrode a jury’s recommendation and imposed the death penalty on a convicted felon rather than life imprisonment. The court has upheld such judicial overrides in the past, so this was not surprising. But Justice Sotomayor took the unusual step of releasing a dissent from that cert denial, joined by Justice Breyer.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Alabama’s judicial override, over the protestation of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer. In a 15-page dissent to the court’s decision not to hear the case, Sotomayor surmises that there is only one reason supported by empirical evidence why Alabama uses the judicial override where other states have moved away from the arbitrary practice: judicial politics.
“Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures,” Sotomayor writes. Sotomayor points to examples of several judges who have imposed death penalty overrides on multiple occasions after having campaigned on support for capital punishment. One judge cited the murderers he has sentenced to death in a campaign ad. Another admitted in a 2011 news report that voter reaction does “have some impact” on sentencing decisions, “especially in high-profile cases.”
Numerous studies have linked judicial elections to tougher sentences, as campaigns typically come with “tough-on-crime” rhetoric. One study published in Harvard University’s The Review of Economics and Statistics found elected judges issue tougher sentences right before an election. Another recent Center for American Progress report linked corporate spending on judicial elections to more prosecution-friendly outcomes.
These findings, in part, speak to the hazards of elections for judges. But the risk of a wrong decision is particularly dire in the case of the death penalty, which is why Sotomayor calls on the court to at least reconsider the strong possibility that death sentences hinging on electoral politics constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eight Amendment. At the very least, she writes, the practice “casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system.”
I’ve even seen judges during campaigns put out fliers and commercials talking up their high conviction rate, which is appalling and should immediately disqualify that person from ever being a judge. The job of a judge is not to convict the defendant, it is to ensure that the defendant gets a fair trial. It is to ensure that justice is done and justice sometimes requires an acquittal. Judicial elections should be eliminated completely.