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Archive for Saturday, May 30, 2009

Death cases would be an early issue

May 30, 2009

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— As a director of a Puerto Rican advocacy group in the 1980s, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was part of a three-person committee that equated capital punishment with racism.

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund argued in a 1981 letter to the governor of New York, Hugh Carey, that “capital punishment represents ongoing racism within our society.”

Sotomayor later became a federal judge and spent 16 years on the bench without having to address the death penalty, one of the most contentious legal issues in the United States. That would change quickly if she is confirmed to the Supreme Court.

The court will hear arguments in three death penalty cases in the term beginning in October. All of the upcoming cases deal with claims by death row inmates and the power of federal courts to review their sentences after state courts have upheld them, not the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.

Only infrequently is the guilt of the person in doubt in such cases. Most often, what the court hears are prisoners’ claims of ineffective lawyers or muddled jury instructions.

Justices, however, use such cases to voice their concerns about the fairness of who gets sentenced to death and who doesn’t, particularly the uneven quality of lawyers in capital cases.

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