Can Congress Overturn Kennedy V. Louisiana?

By Re, Richard M. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Can Congress Overturn Kennedy V. Louisiana?


Re, Richard M., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


As recently illustrated in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court regularly interprets the Eighth Amendment based on the perceived existence of "national consensus." Although this practice has been the topic of extensive commentary and criticism, the existing debate has overlooked the most natural implication of the Court's consensus-based argumentation--namely, the possibility that recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is subject to federal legislative override. This Article argues from existing case law that Kennedy should be susceptible to democratic correction via countervailing federal legislation. Such legislation would demonstrate that no "national consensus" supports the Court's holding, thereby suggesting that the punishment in question does not actually violate the Eighth Amendment. One might respond that Kennedy would have found a constitutional violation based on the Court's "independent judgment," regardless of whether a supportive national consensus existed. But even assuming that is true, federal legislation could address the concerns that underlie the Court's independent judgment analysis. Either way, Kennedy's contingent reasoning would permit at least some correction by the democratic branches. Exploring these possibilities allows us to better understand and justify recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, as well as recent substantive due process cases like Lawrence v. Texas that also look to state and federal practice as sources of constitutional law. Ultimately, though, the most important consequence of appreciating Kennedy's democratic reversibility has more to do with the President than with the professoriate. As a candidate for President, Barack Obama pointedly criticized Kennedy's holding. If this Article is correct, then the President and Congress now have an opportunity to engage the Court in a dialogue regarding the Eighth Amendment" s contemporary practical meaning.

INTRODUCTION

  I. WOULD COUNTERVAILING FEDERAL
     LEGISLATION SHOW THAT NO
     CONSENSUS EXISTS?
     A. Situating Kennedy in Eighth
        Amendment Jurisprudence
     B. Legislative Trends and Actually
        Imposed Sentences
     C. The Overriding Importance of
        Federal Legislation
     D. Justifying Kennedy's Methodology:
        Take One
     E. Was Consensus Necessary in Kennedy?
     F. Conclusion
 II. HOW MIGHT CONGRESS ADDRESS THE
     COURT'S INDEPENDENT JUDGMENT?
     A. Justifying Kennedy's Methodology:
        Take Two
     B. Enforcing the Eighth Amendment
     C. Addressing the Court's Independent
        Judgment
        1. Reasons Within the Judiciary's
           Expertise
        2. Reasons Outside the Judiciary's
           Expertise: Empirics
        3. Reasons Outside the Judiciary's
           Expertise: Value Judgments
     D. Conclusion
III. WHY CAN'T CONGRESS ALSO OVERTURN
     LAWRENCE V. TEXAS?
     A. Early Use of Objective Consensus
     B. The Eighth Amendment as
        Substantive Due Process
     C. Absence of Consensus as a
        Necessary Condition
     D. Contingency in Substantive
        Due Process Case Law
     E. Conclusion
 IV. DOES KENNEDY STAND UP TO CRITICISM?
     A. State-based Efforts to Overturn Kennedy
     B. Identifying Mechanisms for
        Reconsideration
     C. Chilling and Limbering Eighth
        Amendment Jurisprudence
     D. Originalism versus Reversible Eighth
        Amendment Doctrine
     E. Conclusion
CONCLUSION: FIVE WAYS OF READING KENNEDY

INTRODUCTION

In June 2008, the Supreme Court invalidated a Louisiana statute that made the rape of a child a capital offense. (1) The Court held that "the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty" for child rape offenses that do not entail a victim's actual or intended death. (2) Therefore, the Court held that the Louisiana law "is unconstitutional." (3) When courts invoke the Constitution in this way, their edicts are typically received as final pronouncements. …

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