Friday, February 08, 2019

The Cruelty is the Point: SCOTUS Edition

In my roundup the other day, I included the case of an Muslim death row inmate in Alabama who had received a stay of execution by the 11th Circuit because the state was refusing to let his Imam be with him during his execution (the state would have allowed a Christian chaplain, who was a prison employee, in the room). I noted that Alabama appealing the stay -- but I almost didn't bother, since in my head I figured there was no chance the Supreme Court would get involved. Why would they? The stay was at most a minor inconvenience, the Establishment Clause problem seemed obvious and extreme, and there was no pressing issue here that demanded high court intervention to stop the case from proceeding at its own pace.

Shows what I know. In a 5-4 decision (over a brutal Kagan dissent), the Supreme Court vacated the stay and allowed the execution to proceed. The inmate had filed his challenge too late -- not that it was actually barred, mind you, the Court just decided of its own discretion that the inmate was dilatory and that therefore it wouldn't allow the 11th Circuit to hear the case (never mind that, based on the record available, it seems that the inmate filed his case in a perfectly timely fashion).

I have to confess, this rattled me -- more than I would have anticipated -- and I'm clearly not the only one. There are times when courts issue rulings I disagree with, and there are times that courts -- even the Supreme Court, with near-infinite discretion over its own docket -- are effectively compelled to step in and issue a decision in fraught circumstances where some people are going to be displeased with the outcome.

But this wasn't one of those cases. There was no need for the Court to step in here; indeed, it was a shockingly aggressive intervention in a case where the balance of equities seemed to run decisively in favor of the inmate. In this context, the Court's decision -- and the meager faux-technical rationale behind (that doesn't even seem to stand on its own weight) -- feels worse than wrong. It feels petty. It feels mean-spirited, and it feels cruel. And while there are many times where I disagree with this Court on important issues, it is rare that I've felt that they were cruel.

But that's what this decision was. I don't have a philosophical objection to the death penalty (though I have a welter of objections to how it is administered in practice). But I've always felt very strongly that it is important to treat even condemned inmates with respect and dignity -- that capital punishment does not license dehumanization. We're already locking them in a cage and then killing them, visiting further indignities upon them seems gratuitous. So whenever I see rabble-rousers start targeting "last meals", or a prisoner's few hours of "recreation time" because they're prisoners, they're the worst of the worst, I blanch. Such minor nods towards the continued humanity of the condemned are deeply rooted in our nation's history and tradition; they are part of what separates a justice system from unchannelled and unconstrained vengeance.

It should be needless to say that allowing a man facing execution whatever comfort and support he might get from a pastor of his faith is also part of that tradition: it is cruel -- obviously and needlessly -- to deny him even that much. Indeed, the obviousness of this point is why Alabama has a (Christian)  chaplain on staff and available to begin with. So to deny that small comfort to an inmate because of his Muslim faith represents such a striking departure from tradition and practice that it is hard not to see it as motivated by religious animus -- that Muslims don't deserve whatever comfort and pastoral care they might receive from their false clerics. Particularly in the wake of the Muslim ban decision, one could forgive those who now seriously wonder if the basic human equality of the Muslim community is acknowledged at the highest court in our land.

This decision is not a "great" decision. It sets no sweeping precedent, it's (nominal) basis on the alleged "delay" in filing means it doesn't even constrain future cases brought under similar facts. But in a way, its insignificance makes it worse rather than better. This was not a great case. It was a petty case. And the Court's pettiness in interceding is, in its way, far more indicting of its character than many far more jurisprudentially consequential rulings.

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