Facts & Research

United States Supreme Court

In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court found the application of the death penalty unconstitutional, but allowed executions to resume under revised laws four years later. Today, the Court often faces questions on the constitutionality of particular aspects of the death-penalty system.


The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of whether the constitution is being followed. States may be more protective of individual rights than required under the federal constitution, but they cannot be less protective. In particular, the Supreme Court is responsible for ensuring that state use of the death penalty adheres to our fundamental rights. Court rulings can involve the methods of execution used, the competency of defense counsel, the selection of juries, the behavior of the prosecution, and many other matters protected by the right to due process.

In the earlier history of the country, the Supreme Court left much of the practice of the death penalty and other punishments to the states’ discretion, rarely ruling on whether any practice should be considered cruel and unusual. In recent decades, the Court has regularly considered multiple capital cases each term. Some of these cases arise from appeals of state rulings involving the U.S. constitution, others are result of federal decisions on both state and federal death penalty matters.

At Issue

The key question for the Supreme Court is whether the death penalty itself continues to be constitutional in light of its rare use and its rejection by large segments of society. Recent revelations about the risks of executing innocent defendants, racial bias in its application, and the lengthy time inmates spend on death row, has led society to rethink its support of the death penalty. Some Justices have called for a comprehensive review of the practice. The make-up of the Court is likely to determine when such a case might be considered and how the Court will rule.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has summaries of the important death penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court in the modern era. The opinions of individual Justices on the practice of the death penalty in the U.S. are highlighted. Cases that the Court has decided to hear but have not yet been argued are previewed on the website.

News & Developments

Intellectual Disability

Nov 04, 2021

Supreme Court Declines to Review Death Sentence in Case in Which Federal Prosecutors and Defense Agree Defendant’s Intellectual Disability Makes Him Ineligible for the Death Penalty

In a rul­ing that pro­voked a sharp dis­sent from the Court’s lib­er­al minor­i­ty, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review the case of a death-row pris­on­er whom pros­e­cu­tors and defense lawyers agree is not eli­gi­ble for the death penal­ty as a resul…