Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Death Penalty for Raping Child Unconstitutional

"When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint."

The Supreme Court of the United States has held in Kennedy v. Louisiana, by a 5-4 vote, that the state violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments by prescribing the death penalty for rape of a child under the age of 12, where the perpetrator did not kill the child and did not intend to kill the child. Justice Kennedy (no relation to the convicted) wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Breyer, and Ginsburg. Justice Alito dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas. Despite the recognized brutality of the crime against the child victim, Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court insisted on the Constitution's commitment to respecting the dignity of all individuals. "As it related to crimes against individuals," he wrote, "the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim's life was not taken." (Note though the interesting conflict between the Court's framing of its principles -- is the death penalty unconstitutional whenever "life [i]s not taken," or could it be imposed if the perpetrator intended to take life even if the crime did not result in the victim's death? This could become a point of future litigation about the reach of the Eighth Amendment.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Every male has a choice about where he puts his penis."

The British House of Lords today ruled 3-2 that conviction of a male for "rape of a child under age 13" when he, at age 15, had what was accepted in this posture as consensual peno-vaginal intercourse with a 12-year-old female, did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights provision (article 8) guaranteeing respect for private life.

Over the dissents of Lord Hope of Craighead and Lord Carswell, a majority consisting of Lord Hoffman, Baroness Hale of Richmond, and Lord Mance ruled that, given the way the case arose (where the complainant after the defendant was charged admitted lying about her age and later in the proceedings expressed her satisfaction with a guilty plea entered on the basis that the two of them had consensual sex, so that she did not have to testify in court), the crown was not required to proceed against the defendant on the basis of a different section of the Criminal Offences Act of 2003 criminalizing "sexual offences committed by persons under 18," which carries lower penalties and did not bear the term "rape" in its title. The majority believed that the defendant's main objection, since the Court of Appeal had reduced his sentence, was the stigma of the term "rape." But they did not believe that sufficient to violate the defendant's article 8 right to respect for his private life.

Baroness Hale, speaking somewhat plainly, also took pains to reject the characterization of section 5 of the Act as a "strict liability" crime that the Lords were somehow improperly upholding:
The perpetrator has to intend to penetrate. Every male has a choice about where he puts his penis. It may be difficult for him to restrain himself when aroused but he has a choice. There is nothing unjust or irrational about a law which says that if he chooses to put his penis inside a child who turns out to be under 13 he has committed an offence (although the state of his mind may again be relevant to sentence). . . . The object is to make him take responsibility for what he chooses to do with what is capable of being, not only an instrument of great pleasure, but also a weapon of great danger.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Welcome to the (Marriage) Club, Norway

Norway is now set to become the sixth country in the world (following the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa) to allow same-sex couples to marry civilly. The law, passed today, will go into effect January 1, reports the Los Angeles Times in this story.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Arriverderci "Persons, Not Groups"

The U.S. Supreme Court has held in Anup Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture (June 9, 2008) that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution does not even apply to claims by government employees that the government has treated just one employee unequally and irrationally (as opposed, for example to discriminating against a larger class of employees, such as those of a particular race or sex). The majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, and Alito) purports to adhere to past pronouncements that the Equal Protection Clause protects "persons, not groups" and confers an individual right. The majority Justices thus carved out an exception from the general equal protection principle, recognized by the Court in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, that government violates equal protection where it "intentionally treat[s an individual] differently from others similarly situated and ... there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment."

The Court's ruling in Engquist that equal protection does not even apply to such "class of one" claims in the government employment setting is driven by a worry about the prospect of every government employee grievance spawning potential constitutional litigation against employers. Justice Stevens's dissent (joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg) argues forcefully that experience shows no need to create such an ad hoc exemption from equal protection principles, certainly not as broad a rule as stated in the majority opinion. And if the majority felt so strongly about the policy basis for its holding, perhaps it would have been more prudent for them to attribute it to the federal law authorizing suits for constitutional violations, Title 42 of the United States Code, section 1983, which could be changed by a Congress that disagreed with its worried, rather than to distort its interpretation of the Constitution itself (which the majority reaffirms binds government even when government acts as an employer), which is beyond legislative correction without satisfaction of the supermajority requirements of constitutional amendment.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

By its original 4-3 majority, he California Supreme Court has denied the requests for rehearing and that it stay the effect of its decision in In re Marriage Cases until after the voters decide in November whether to amend the state Constitution to bar the state from recognizing marriages for same-sex couples. (The court's news release and order are here.) This comes as no surprise to me and most scholars who've commented on the requests, but it does clear the way for counties to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples without fear of liability as early as 5:00 p.m. on Monday, June 16.