Hundreds on death row affected
Behind the Supreme Court rulings

By Deirdre Griswold

He was called "Governor Death" before his brother's Florida political machine and the Supreme Court made George W. Bush president of the United States. As governor of Texas, he sent more people to their deaths than any other U.S. politician.

Now, the same conservative court that declared Bush the winner of the 2024 presidential election has made two rulings limiting the application of the death penalty.

The first came on June 20, when the court ruled six to three that it was unconstitutional to execute people who are mentally disabled.

Of the 38 states that have the death penalty, nearly half of them--18--already have such prohibitions. The court overturned an earlier Supreme Court decision that had allowed such executions, ruling that a "national consensus" has since developed against executing people with reduced mental abilities.

According to Amnesty International, the United States has executed 35 mentally disabled people since the death penalty was restored in 1976.

Right-wing stalwarts Antonin Scalia, William H. Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas opposed the decision. Two other conservative justices, however--Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter--joined the four liberals in the decision.

The ruling involved the case of Daryl R. Atkins, an African American man who faced execution in Virginia. Former State Department officials and all 15 members of the European Union had submitted briefs on his behalf. The U.S. diplomats argued that the execution of mentally impaired people created problems for this country's relations with the rest of the world.

Judge-imposed death sentences struck down

The second Supreme Court ruling on death penalty cases came June 24. The court ruled seven to two in Ring vs. Arizona that judges cannot impose capital punishment; only juries can.

If applied retroactively, this decision would immediately invalidate death sentences for 168 people held in five states--Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska--where judges have put them on death row. Another 529 people in four other states--Alabama, Delaware, Florida and Indiana--may also be affected, because juries there are limited to "advising" judges on sentences.

Juries are less likely to impose capital punishment than judges.

In this ruling, three of the five more conservative justices voted with the majority.

The movement against the death penalty will be analyzing these decisions to determine whether they are a step in the direction of abolishing or strengthening capital punishment as a whole.

The fact that several very conservative justices voted for them shows the dilemma the capitalist state finds itself in. Capital punishment has been abolished in most of the industrialized countries of the world. The United States and Japan are the only two governments to have executed mentally disabled people in recent years, according to Amnesty International. Many countries refuse to extradite accused persons to the United States because of the large number of executions here.

All over the world, there is growing apprehension over the arrogant doctrine of the Bush administration and the Pentagon that says they have the right to intervene wherever and whenever they choose around the globe, in the name of an endless war against terrorism. When U.S. citizens travel abroad, they are bombarded with questions about what is happening in this country.

How can Washington unilaterally abrogate agreements, from global warming to limits on nuclear weapons?

How can it ignore the sentiment of the vast majority of the world on racism, on land mines, on hunger, on AIDS--and on the death penalty?

How can it imprison thousands of people without any due process of law, as it has done in the military prison camp at Guantanamo and in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers around the country?

These criticisms come from bourgeois elements as well as from mass movements of the workers and oppressed. That's why those representing the United States internationally feel its image needs a makeover.

Inside the United States, monopoly control of the media gives the impression that the public welcomes the lurch toward dictatorial powers by the Bush administration. But that is like saying the people of the United States wanted the Vietnam War, when in reality it was presented to them as a fait accompli by the capitalist establishment.

Workers in the United States don't want a police state or an endless and costly state of war. But they are being barraged with propaganda that if they complain, they're soft on terrorism.

Bush threatened every potential dissenter with his statement, "You're either with us or with the terrorists."

It takes courage to go against the weight of the government and the all-pervasive mass media. But when conditions become unbearable, individual resistance grows into a militant movement against the establishment.

That is a lesson of history that the ruling class understands and is always preparing for.

Of all the branches of government, the Supreme Court is supposed to be most detached from immediate politics and most capable of thinking of the long-term interests of the system. That's why its members are appointed for life. They are expected to be able to take some flak if a change of course is deemed necessary.

From 1953 until 1969, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren earned a liberal reputation because of decisions like Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), which struck down segregation in the public schools. This decision anticipated the massive civil rights movement that was already beginning to shake the South.

Warren had not been considered a liberal when President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated him to the court. On the contrary, as the governor of California he had been personally responsible for the racist internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But he recognized the great danger to U.S. imperialism inherent in the continuation of segregation at a time when national liberation movements were sweeping the Third World.

Warren retired in 1969, right after Richard M. Nixon became president. By 1973, when the court legalized abortion in Roe vs. Wade, six of the nine justices had been appointed by Republican presidents. There were four Nixon appointees.

Yet five of the six--Potter Stewart, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Warren Burger and Lewis Powell--voted to legalize abortion, along with Democratic appointees Thurgood Marshall and William O. Douglass.

This is not to suggest in any way that the Supreme Court can be relied on as a liberal force in society. Rather, the point is that whether the court is dominated by Republican or Democratic appointees, it has to consider the rise of mass movements--like the movements for civil rights and for women's rights.

What happens in the streets is decisive. The current court would like the movement against the death penalty to go away once the death penalty's most egregious features have been removed. But the whole "justice" system is weighted against the poor and the nationally oppressed. As long as there are death rows under capitalism, they will be stuffed with workers, especially people of color, and not with CEOs or Pentagon war criminals.

Recently released figures for 2024 show that serious crimes, including murder, are once again on the rise, after dropping for about a decade. This blows out of the water the view that more prisons and heavier sentences reduce crime.

All the "law and order" politicians who tried to claim credit for a lower crime rate were merely capitalizing on the economic boom. Crimes go up in periods of economic recession and uncertainty, as many people's lives go into chaos.

Where there is greater economic security for the people, there is much less crime. That is a fact borne out by the statistics in socialist countries--and even in capitalist countries where the working class has won better job and income guarantees than in the United States. The answer to crime is jobs, not jails; housing, not jails; education, not jails--and an end to the death penalty.