Ernie Chambers finally gets Nebraska to vote to end the death penalty

To my surprise, the legislature of the state of Nebraska just voted to abolish the death penalty. While sentiment against the death penalty has been slowly rising with time, it still has not reached a majority and Nebraska is a pretty conservative state. Republican governor Pete Ricketts, a strong supporter of the death penalty, is expected to veto the legislation but the margins by which it passed suggest that the veto will be over-ridden. If so, it would be the first conservative state to abolish the death penalty since 1973. 31 other states still have the death penalty.

Many of the reasons for abolishing it were not based on morality however.

The Nebraska vote marks a shift in the national debate because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons, cast it as a waste of taxpayer money and question whether government can be trusted to manage it. Traditionally, law-and-order conservatives in the United States have stood among the strongest supporters of the ultimate punishment.

Nebraska hasn’t executed a prisoner since 1997, and some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from doing so again.

“It’s certainly a matter of conscience, at least in part, but it’s also a matter of trying to be philosophically consistent,” said Sen. Laure Ebke, a Republican from Crete. “If government can’t be trusted to manage our health care … then why should it be trusted to carry out the irrevocable sentence of death?”

However one person in the legislature did have the right reasons and when reading the news report, his name triggered my memory.

“Nebraska has a chance to step into history – the right side of history – to take a step that will be beneficial toward the advancement of a civilized society,” said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an independent who has fought for four decades to the end the death penalty.

Ernie Chambers was the person who challenged the practice of the Nebraska legislature opening its sessions with a prayer. That case Marsh v. Chambers went all the way to the US Supreme Court that in 1983 upheld the constitutionality of the practice using the muddled ‘history and tradition’ reasoning it falls back on whenever it is confronted with something that it is loathe to overturn (like government ceremonial prayer) but which is clearly unconstitutional. I discussed this precedent setting case that set the stage for the more recent Greece v. Galloway case that ended up pretty much the same way and justice William Brennan’s wonderful dissent) in some detail here, here, and here.

Chambers is a truly remarkable man. For over 40 years he has been fighting the good fight in a state that is largely hostile to everything he stands for. In 2006, Mother Jones ran an article about him.

ernie_265x270He wears sweatshirts and jeans amid a forest of suits and ties; his gray beard contrasts with the clean chins of most of his brethren. He’s been described as “left of San Francisco” in a state that for decades has been tightly tucked under the blanket of conservative Republicanism. And, also, he’s black, the lone African American in the Legislature.

Depending on your perspective, that fact means everything or nothing. To Chambers, it is the characteristic by which his enemies, who are legion, define him, and for which they despise him. “They don’t like who I am, and they don’t like what I do,” he says.

But they do help him do it, albeit reluctantly. Because of Chambers, the Legislature routinely backs bills its members wouldn’t otherwise have dreamed of supporting. He cajoled his colleagues into abolishing corporal punishment in schools, correcting the state pension system so that women would be treated equally with men, and backing a switch from at-large municipal elections to district-based voting so that nonwhites would have a chance to serve. Under his sway, Nebraska led the nation in the 1980s in divesting in companies that did business with apartheid-era South Africa. Every session he introduces a bill calling for an end to the death penalty. He once got the Legislature to approve it, but could not overcome the governor’s veto. He later led the Legislature in halting the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded, ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s nationwide bans.

He is not one to mince his words. He said of Nebraska, “It’s a terrible place to be. It is an ultraconservative, ultra-racist state. I would not advise anybody black to come here.”

Tell it like it is, Ernie!


  1. militantagnostic says

    Didn’t he sue god a few years ago to make a point about something?
    I am pretty sure he is an atheist.

  2. DsylexicHippo says

    The “lone African American in the Legislature”? How about the lone African American in the state?

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