This article explores the evolving role of the U.S. Supreme Court in the politics of death. By constitutionalizing the death penalty in the 1970s, the Supreme Court unintentionally set into motion political forces that have seriously undermined the Court’s vision of a death penalty that is fairly administered and imposed only on the worst offenders. With the death penalty established as a highly salient political issue, politiciansï¿½legislators, prosecutors, and governorsï¿½have strong institutional incentives to make death sentences easier to achieve and carry out. The result of this vicious cycle is not only more executions, but less reliable determinations of who truly deserves the ultimate sanction.
The Supreme Court has recently begun to chart a differentï¿½and more promisingï¿½approach to death penalty reform. In two key areas, the Court has recently reinterpreted prior constitutional doctrines in ways that seem designed to counteract death’s politics. These rules determine the type of offenses for which death is a “cruel and unusual” sanction (the Eighth Amendment’s capital proportionality standard) and the quality of representation defendants must receive in capital cases (the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of effective assistance of counsel). Each of these rules has been transformed from doctrines that had little effect on the administration of the death penalty into potent weapons for counteracting the politics of death and promoting the fairness and rationality of the capital sentencing process.