Baze v. Rees

Baze v. Rees

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Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008), was a United States Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 case. The court agreed to hear the appeal of two men, Ralph Baze
Ralph Baze
Ralph Baze is a convicted murderer who sued the Kentucky State Department of Corrections along with fellow inmate Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr. to challenge their impending execution. He and Bowling sued on the grounds that execution by lethal injection under the "cocktail" prescribed by Kentucky law...

 and Thomas Bowling
Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr.
Thomas Bowling is an American convicted murderer who unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence.Bowling was convicted and sentenced to death for the April 9, 1990, murders of Tina and Eddie Earley. Bowling shot the Earleys dead after ramming their car outside their small...

, who were sentenced to death
Capital punishment
Capital punishment, the death penalty, or execution is the sentence of death upon a person by the state as a punishment for an offence. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences. The term capital originates from the Latin capitalis, literally...

 in Kentucky
Kentucky
The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a state located in the East Central United States of America. As classified by the United States Census Bureau, Kentucky is a Southern state, more specifically in the East South Central region. Kentucky is one of four U.S. states constituted as a commonwealth...

. The men argue that executing them by lethal injection
Lethal injection
Lethal injection is the practice of injecting a person with a fatal dose of drugs for the express purpose of causing the immediate death of the subject. The main application for this procedure is capital punishment, but the term may also be applied in a broad sense to euthanasia and suicide...

 would violate the 8th Amendment
Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights which prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment's Cruel and Unusual...

 prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment
Cruel and unusual punishment
Cruel and unusual punishment is a phrase describing criminal punishment which is considered unacceptable due to the suffering or humiliation it inflicts on the condemned person...

. Under court precedent, lethal injection must not inflict "unnecessary pain". The men's attorneys argued that the chemicals used to kill them carried an unnecessary risk of inflicting pain during the process. The case had nationwide implications because the specific "cocktail" used for lethal injections in Kentucky is the same that virtually all states use for lethal injection. An effective moratorium on executions in the United States had taken place since certiorari
Certiorari
Certiorari is a type of writ seeking judicial review, recognized in U.S., Roman, English, Philippine, and other law. Certiorari is the present passive infinitive of the Latin certiorare...

 was granted in this case.

The Court heard oral argument
Oral argument
Oral arguments are spoken presentations to a judge or appellate court by a lawyer of the legal reasons why they should prevail. Oral argument at the appellate level accompanies written briefs, which also advance the argument of each party in the legal dispute...

s on January 7, 2008. On April 16, the Court rejected the challenge thereby upholding Kentucky's method of lethal injection by a vote of 7-2. John Paul Stevens
John Paul Stevens
John Paul Stevens served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from December 19, 1975 until his retirement on June 29, 2010. At the time of his retirement, he was the oldest member of the Court and the third-longest serving justice in the Court's history...

 wrote a concurrence in the judgement which attacked the thesis of the death penalty while Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Joan Bader Ginsburg is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton and took the oath of office on August 10, 1993. She is the second female justice and the first Jewish female justice.She is generally viewed as belonging to...

 and David Souter
David Souter
David Hackett Souter is a former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He served from 1990 until his retirement on June 29, 2009. Appointed by President George H. W. Bush to fill the seat vacated by William J...

 dissented.

Justice Stevens' Concurrence


Justice John Paul Stevens concurred in the opinion of the Court, writing separately to explain his concerns with the death penalty in general. He wrote that the case questioned the "justification for the death penalty itself". He characterized the motivation behind the dealth penalty as an antithesis to modern values:
We are left, then, with retribution as the primary rationale for imposing the death penalty. And indeed, it is the retribution rationale that animates much of the remaining enthusiasm for the death penalty. As Lord Justice Denning argued in 1950, “ ‘some crimes are so outrageous that society insists on adequate punishment, because the wrong-doer deserves it, irrespective of whether it is a deterrent or not.’ ” See Gregg
Gregg v. Georgia
Gregg v. Georgia, Proffitt v. Florida, Jurek v. Texas, Woodson v. North Carolina, and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 153 , reaffirmed the United States Supreme Court's acceptance of the use of the death penalty in the United States, upholding, in particular, the death sentence imposed on Troy Leon...

, 428 U. S., at 184, n. 30. Our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has narrowed the class of offenders eligible for the death penalty to include only those who have committed outrageous crimes defined by specific aggravating factors. It is the cruel treatment of victims that provides the most persuasive arguments for prosecutors seeking the death penalty. A natural response to such heinous crimes is a thirst for vengeance.


He further stressed concern over the process of death penalty cases where emotion plays a major role and where the safeguards for defendants may have been lowered. He then added statistics which demonstrated, in his opinion, that death penalty cases are usually erroneous because many sentenced to die have been later found wrongly convicted. He concluded by stating that a penalty "with such negligible returns to the State [is] patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment".

None of the other eight members of the Court choose to join Justice Stevens's opinion. Justice Breyer, one of the liberal justices, stated on the contrary in his concurring opinion that "the
lawfulness of the death penalty is not before us".

Justice Scalia' response


Joined by Justice Thomas
Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Succeeding Thurgood Marshall, Thomas is the second African American to serve on the Court....

, Justice Scalia wrote separately "to provide what I think is needed response to Justice Stevens’ separate opinion." :
This conclusion is insupportable as an interpretation of the Constitution, which generally leaves it to democratically elected legislatures rather than courts to decide what makes significant contribution to social or public purposes. Besides that more general proposition, the very text of the document recognizes that the death penalty is a permissible legislative choice. The Fifth Amendment expressly requires a presentment or indictment of a grand jury to hold a person to answer for “a capital, or otherwise infamous crime,” and prohibits deprivation of “life” without due process of law. [...]

In the fact of Justice Stevens’ experience, the experience of all others is, it appears, of little consequence. The experience of the state legislatures and the Congress—who retain the death penalty as a form of punishment—is dismissed as “the product of habit and inattention rather than an acceptable deliberative process”. The experience of social scientists whose studies indicate that the death penalty deters crime is relegated to a footnote. The experience of fellow citizens who support the death penalty is described, with only the most thinly veiled condemnation, as stemming from a “thirst for vengeance”. It is Justice Stevens’ experience that reigns over all. [...]

Justice Stevens’ final refuge in his cost-benefit analysis is a familiar one: There is a risk that an innocent person might be convicted and sentenced to death—though not a risk that Justice Stevens can quantify, because he lacks a single example of a person executed for a crime he did not commit in the current American system.

But of all Justice Stevens’ criticisms of the death penalty, the hardest to take is his bemoaning of “the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society,” including the “burden on the courts and the lack of finality for victim’s families.”. Those costs, those burdens, and that lack of finality are in large measure the creation of Justice Stevens and other Justices opposed to the death penalty, who have “encumber[ed] [it] … with unwarranted restrictions neither contained in the text of the Constitution nor reflected in two centuries of practice under it”—the product of their policy views “not shared by the vast majority of the American people.”

See also

  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 553
  • Participation of medical professionals in American executions
    Participation of medical professionals in American executions
    Participation of medical professionals in American executions is a controversial topic, due to its moral and legal implications. The practice is proscribed by the American Medical Association, as defined in its Code of Medical Ethics...

  • Wilkerson v. Utah
    Wilkerson v. Utah
    Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 , is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court affirmed the judgment of the Supreme Court of the Territory of Utah in stating that execution by firing squad, as prescribed by the Utah territorial statute, was not cruel and unusual punishment under the...


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