Thursday, April 24, 2008

Originalism, The Death Penalty, and The Perfect Poison

The decision in Baze v. Rees set off much discussion (stemming from Justice Stevens' concurrence) as to whether the death penalty can be ruled unconstitutional. The major argument against is that the constitution clearly contemplates the use of the death penalty at several points -- most notably the due process clauses ("No person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...."). Given this rather clear affirmation that the state can (after satisfying due process concerns) take away a person's life, is there any room for the an abolitionist claim?

To explore this issue, I offer up a fantastical historical scenario which I nonetheless think might illuminate how context is critical, even in seemingly clear textual cases. It is the story of the Perfect Poison:

* * *

When European settlers first began to arrive in America, they discovered a bounty of new flora and fauna, wildlife and crops, that were rare or non-existent back in their homelands. One of the most intriguing of these was a small, clover like plant that grew wild in the forested expanses of the east. Local Native Americans used it as euthanasia for their dying elders, or warriors mortally wounded in battle, for, when mashed into a paste and ingested, it had the effect of immediately and painlessly causing death. Observers who saw the plant being administered marveled at how -- in contrast to the bloody spectacle of beheadings or the slow struggle for air during a hanging -- men and women who were fed the clover simply seemed to drift off to sleep, without struggle or apparent distress. Dubbed "American Hemlock", the plant was colloquially known simply as "the perfect poison."

Seeking to distinguish themselves from their more backwards European forebearers, American colonists rapidly began utilizing the perfect poison as their sole method of execution. This is not to say there was no debate over the morality of the death penalty. Quakers and other abolitionists argued strongly that the state had no right to claim a human life, as part of their generic opposition to non-violence. When America achieved independence and the constitution was being drafted, this debate grew in salience dramatically. When the due process clause was drafted to include the potential for capital punishment, progressives reformers attempted to make a stand and strip the word "life" from the text.

The debate was fierce, instigated primarily by a few true believers on each side. Knowing that their "objective" critique of capital punishment was unlikely to sway undecided delegates, abolitionists pointed to the excesses of the French Revolution and tried to emphasize the risk of brutal, undignified killing at the hands of the state. The "spirit of '76" made the delegates very receptive to the inherent human dignity possessed by all individuals, even criminals. But advocates of the death penalty responded by pointing to the perfect poison. America already had nearly 100 years of experience with this drug, and thus reliably knew that they could apply the ultimate punishment while still maintaining the dignity of the criminal. They pointed out that if, by some chance, the national government wished to abandon the perfect poison, it would run afoul of the just-completed clause prohibiting "cruel and unusual" punishment (what would later be the 8th amendment). The risks the abolitionists claimed were confined to old Europe. Americans had developed their own method of execution, that was quick, painless, and immediately lethal.

As the debate progressed, it became clear that the existence and use of the perfect poison was going to be the decisive factor. Delegates who had come in undecided were gradually won over to the pro-death penalty side. The abolitionist's arguments were abstract and unpersuasive given the existence and universal usage of the perfect poison. "Were we still in England, and capital punishment meant sickening hangings (with many more savage citizens clamoring for the return of burning at stake!), I would not hesitate to ban it," proclaimed one delegate from New Jersey. "Where the culture is one of barbarism, where the norms of the enlightenment have not penetrated, the penalty of death is too dangerous to lie in the hands of man. But, God blessed America with an excellent herb, one which evades all the traps of savagery, and our people in their infinite wisdom have taken to use it. It is always possible that our people will regress or thirst for more blood, I admit. But I believe that, given the choice between civilization and the abyss, our people will choose the former."

And so it was that the constitution passed explicitly contemplating the use of the death penalty in America.

Unfortunately, what was not foreseen by the Representative from New Jersey, nor any of the other delegates at the Convention, was the rapidity by which Americans would settle their new country. American Hemlock, as mentioned, grew only in the leafy expanses of the eastern forests, and was resistant to cultivation. It was also highly sensitive to human encroachment. As these woods were cut down to make room for new farms and homesteads, the perfect poison became harder and harder to find. At the same time, its demand was skyrocketing, leading to over-harvesting. By the mid-18th century, the plant was only rarely seen. In response to this scarcity, governors began authorizing the alternative forms of execution that had repelled the framers: hanging and firing squads. But even with this shift in policy, habitat loss had doomed American Hemlock. By 1890, it was declared extinct.

* * *

The point of this story is to illustrate how contemporary context can matter, even to an originalist or textualist. The framers sanctioned the use of the death penalty within the specific context of the availability of the perfect poison. Not contemplating the modern problem of ecological collapse, the founders did not envision the potential for these circumstances to change. But, without the perfect poison, it would seem clear that, at the very least, the question of whether the death penalty was constitutionally sanctioned was open again, notwithstanding constitutional text that contemplates its use.

Now, obviously, this story is extreme. Most obviously, there was no perfect poison, nor is there any proof that American colonists would have used or preferred even if there was. Also importantly, the story creates a scenario where the necessary trigger for permitting the death penalty physically disappeared from the planet. I am not arguing that the actual process of deliberation over the death penalty even closely approximated this.

Nonetheless, I think this story is conceptually illustrative. For one, at the very least I think it demonstrates that changes in context can theoretically alter what is and is not sanctioned by constitutional clauses, even under a very strict form of originalism. And I think it demonstrates that point more broadly that might be apparent at first glance. The framers in this story were making decisions about broad principles based upon what -- in retrospect -- we can see to be temporally-specific assumptions. Here, the assumptions were laid out explicitly (in the debate, anyway -- the drafted text did not anywhere specifically demand that life only be taken by the perfect poison), and the change in circumstances was dramatic. But in general, I think it's obvious that when people engage in deliberation they work from within the only conceptual framework available to them -- that is, their own place, time, and vantage point -- and make decisions that are contingent on those assumptions. As Iris Marion Young points out, "in political communication our goal is not to arrive at some generalities .... Instead, we are looking for just solutions to particular problems in a particular social context" [Inclusion and Democracy (Cambridge: Oxford UP 2000), 113]. Everyone deliberates that way, utilizing assumptions (usually unstated) drawn from the world around us that -- like the world itself -- can and often do change in the future.

The standard "originalist" (or perhaps "classical originalist", since I think the debate here is still largely intra-mural) response here would be to say that the constitution accounts for changing circumstances through the amendment process, nothing more. But I think the perfect poison story demonstrates why this is too thin a response. The existence of the perfect poison -- assumed to be permanent but really contextual -- was an embedded assumption laid into the text as originally deliberated and drafted. It would seem foolish to take from that ratification debate the principle that the death penalty absent the perfect poison is consistent with the mutually agreed upon principles that came out of the ratification debate, because that's clearly not what had been agreed upon. Rather, any debate about the current constitutionality of the death penalty would have to closely examine the relevant context and assumptions under which it was passed (including assumptions about justice and human dignity) to see whether they still hold up in the present day. If, for example, the founders ratified the use of the death penalty based on a conception of human dignity that is now "extinct", is that any different than ratifying the use of the death penalty based on the availability of a "perfect poison" that is now extinct? I don't know. But it's an interesting question to ask.


PG said...

As Olde Tymey as 1789 might seem, it was sufficiently modern for the Founders to know of technological progress and environmental alteration. While much of the Constitution was written with an eye to avoiding past abuses, it also was written with awareness that the future would be different from the present. I find it implausible to argue that a Constitutional provision could depend on the existence or non-existence of a specific object. That was why the document was written in (often frustratingly) vague terms. Even in your counter-factual, had the Founders intended executions to be carried out only with this specific poison, why wouldn't they have mentioned it in the 8th Amendment? "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted, nor execution performed other than by American Hemlock."

The broad terms of the Constitution are one of the reasons I find original intent -- whether as a device for narrowing individual liberties, or restricting federal powers -- to be annoyingly missing the forest for the trees. Even conservative members of the Supreme Court have been willing to adapt new technologies into existing legal frameworks. The Founders didn't know there would be pot growing lamps, and then lamp detectors for police, but they did know there were more thing in heaven and earth than were dreamt of even in Jefferson's philosophy.

David Schraub said...

While I agree that my scenario is not very plausible in its facts (it's goal was to illustrate a concept about how texts are written with context in mind), I don't think it's as ridiculous as you make out. I don't think the founders necessarily would have foreseen natural extinction on the horizon. There were still people who argued that extinction was impossible (because God wouldn't allow it), and the American psyche at the time was suffused with the vision of the new continent as a source of endless bounty, not limited resources.

But back to the broad point: People don't theorize broadly well. They can conceptualize that circumstances might change and allow for certain flexibility to account for that (a factor that I agree with you explains the constitution's extremely broad language). But the substantive content they do lay down tends to be suffused with the provincial and contextual concerns of the day -- even if subtextually -- because people can't pre-emptively solve problems that haven't arisen yet and are not even on the horizon. Hence, their only reference point for making normative commitments is the present and, to a lesser extent, the past -- inadequate bulwarks against the undeniable fluidity of the future.