Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, November 20, 2020

ACB & Garvey on Catholic Judges in Capital Cases

The short reading for morning prayer today was Ephesians 4:29-32:

Guard against foul talk; let your words be for the improvement of others, as occasion offers, and do good to your listeners, otherwise you will only be grieving the Holy Spirit of God who has marked you with his seal for you to be set free when the day comes. Never have grudges against others, or lose your temper, or raise your voice to anybody, or call each other names, or allow any sort of spitefulness. Be friends with one another, and kind, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ.

Reflecting on this reading made me go back and delete a reply I had sent earlier that morning on Twitter. And this was all after I had apologized for misunderstanding another person's posts about the same topic. So perhaps I'll lay off Twitter when it comes to responding to people criticizing Justice Barrett as having violated her faith by voting to deny relief in a federal execution. But some response remains warranted. So here it is.

Let's begin with how serious an accusation it is to assert that someone has violated her faith and well-formed conscience. The gravity of such a charge is not a decisive reason against leveling it. But it is reason to make sure one knows what one is talking about in doing so. 

In this case, that is easy enough because Justice Barrett has done more than any other Justice to explain how she understands the relationship between Catholic teaching on the death penalty and what role Catholic judges may play in a legal system that imposes and carries out such sentences. That explanation appears in Catholic Judges in Capital Cases, 81 Marquette Law Review 303 (1998), co-authored with John Garvey. 

I know from personal experience how helpful this article can be for thinking through the challenging issues that confront anyone who participates in some way in a legal system that carries out the death penalty even while believing the punishment immoral in almost all circumstances in which it is imposed in society today. I'm one of those people. And there are a lot of us.

I had to think about it when handed my very first case as a judicial clerk in my first job out of law school. It was a capital case with something like 17 issues, resulting in a bench memo of over 70 pages. (I was new and very much in need of an editor.) Because many recent law graduates serve as law clerks, and many jurisdictions impose the death penalty, every year there are law clerks in the same situation I found myself in. And when I can, I try to point them to this ACB/Garvey article. This is not because it answers every question one might have about every kind of cooperation with evil one might encounter. But it is careful, thorough, and attentive to orthodoxy.

Some of Justice Barrett's casual critics have clearly not done the reading. Which is a shame because one can learn a lot by engaging the Barrett/Garvey analysis on its own terms. In some places, the authors' conclusions are appropriately tentative and tempered by an awareness that not all circumstances can be accounted for properly simply by categorizing, for example, guilt phase vs. penalty phase, trial vs. appeal vs. collateral review. Roughly speaking, though, Barrett & Garvey conclude that Catholic judges "may sit on the guilt phase of capital cases--provided they withdraw before sentencing. They may handle appeals challenging convictions and (perhaps) even sentences. They may also engage in collateral review of cases where the defendant was sentenced to death." 81 Marq. L. Rev. at 345.

I won't repeat their analysis here, but will add only that by the time that any capital case gets to the Supreme Court, it has either already been through multiple layers of review, or there is some procedural bar if the claim is relatively new. The extent of material cooperation in such circumstances is thus typically lower than even the typical appellate or collateral review. 

There is a danger of scandal, though. And this is another reason why Catholics who really ought to know better should be sure they understand what they're talking about before they risk contributing to scandal with casual condemnations of alleged infidelity to one's well-formed conscience.


Walsh, Kevin | Permalink