Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Author of Key Death-Penalty Decisions, Retires

Justice Anthony Kennedy (pictured) announced on June 27, 2018, that he will retire from the U.S. Supreme Court. During Kennedy’s thirty years on the Court, he became known as a swing vote, siding with both the conservative and liberal wings of the Court. His role as the Court's swing vote extended to some crucial death-penalty cases, including Roper v. Simmons (2005), in which the justices struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders under age 18, and Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), in which the justices barred the death penalty for child rape and other offenses that did not result in death. He also provided the decisive fifth vote against a challenge to lethal-injection practices brought by Oklahoma death-row prisoners in Glossip v. Gross. In his opinion for the five-member majority in the Kennedy case, Justice Kennedy wrote: “When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint. For these reasons we have explained that capital punishment must ‘be limited to those offenders who commit a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution.’” Justice Kennedy was a leading architect of caselaw decided under the Eighth Amendment’s “evolving standards of decency.” Under that doctrine, the Court looked to various measures of contemporary American values to determine whether a national consensus had evolved against a penal practice. Justice Kennedy authored numerous decisions for the Court applying or interpreting that doctrine, including Roper and Kennedy, as well as 5-4 decisions that struck down statutes or practices that risked execution of defendants with intellectual disability (Hall v. Florida (2014)) or would have permitted the execution of individuals whose extreme mental illness caused them to become mentally incompetent after having been sentenced to death (Panetti v. Quarterman). In declaring unconstitutional Florida’s use of a strict IQ threshold in determining whether defendants were intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, Justice Kennedy wrote: “The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. The States are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitu­tion protects.” Vann R. Newkirk II, writing about Kennedy's civil rights legacy in The Atlantic, said, “The Eighth Amendment has been invoked often by Kennedy and the four liberal justices as a legal weapon in the nation’s highest court in order to curb the most draconian impulses of the criminal-justice system.” In his resignation letter to the President, Justice Kennedy wrote, “Please permit me by this letter to express my profound gratitude for having had the privilege to seek in each case how best to know, interpret and defend the Constitution and the laws that must always conform to its mandates and promises.”

(Vann R. Newkirk II, What Kennedy's Absence Means for Civil Rights, The Atlantic, June 27, 2018; Greg Stohr, Anthony Kennedy, Swing Vote on U.S. Supreme Court, Will Retire, Bloomberg, June 27, 2018; Michael D. Shear, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy Will Retire, The New York Times, June 27, 2018; Richard Wolf, Justice Anthony Kennedy to retire, opening Supreme Court seat for President Trump, USA Today, June 27, 2018.) See U.S. Supreme Court.