[Jeff] Fisher, Kennedy's lawyer, gamely opens with the observation that Louisiana's effort to "reintroduce" the death penalty for rapists violates the "long-standing national consensus against it." It also offends a line of cases that require states to very narrowly define the class of offenders eligible for the death penalty. Justice Antonin Scalia interrupts him to ask how one might further narrow a class of "child rapists" and whether any rape of a child under 12 could fairly be described as not "particularly heinous."...But there is very little to laugh about here. As Lithwick notes, the rape for which Kennedy received the death penalty was truly horrible. Kennedy weighed 300 pounds and the child was 8.
Fisher says that if you look at the pair of recent cases that banned capital punishment for mentally retarded offenders (in 2002) and juvenile offenders (in 2005), it's clear the social consensus is trending away from the death penalty. Then, Roberts jumps in to argue that the "evolving standards of decency" test should not be a one-way ratchet. Does this trend "only work one way?" he asks. "How are you ever supposed to get consensus moving in the opposite direction? … Do 20 states have to get together and do it at the same time?"
Scalia says this high bar against reversing the prevailing trend would put the court in the position of "prohibiting the people from changing their mind." And Roberts says the clear trend that matters is not the one Fisher points to but rather that "more and more states are passing statutes imposing the death penalty in situations that do not result in death." Scalia almost chortles. "Did you ever hear the expression 'hoist by your own petard?' The trend here is clearly in the direction of permitting more and more … capital punishment for this crime!"
I'm glad to see that Justices Alito and Ginsburg brought up the feminist themes that I noted in this earlier post on the case. Lithwick writes:
Justice Samuel Alito quotes a line from [the 1977 precedent] Coker opining that "life is over for the victim of the murderer. For the rape victim, life may not be nearly so happy as it was." He asks, incredulously, is that "something that would be written today?" Ginsburg adds that the attitudes toward rape that animated Coker—that women were the property of their husbands or fathers and were "spoiled" after a rape—have "no parallel with child rape." There was a lot of race and gender bias under the surface of the Coker case that isn't immediately present in this one.