KNOWLES: The Left’s Evolving Standards Of Indecency


Capital punishment is neither cruel nor unusual. Justice Neil Gorsuch explained this plain constitutional fact this week writing for the Court in Bucklew v. Precythe. Leftists fumed. “Gorsuch just handed down the most bloodthirsty and cruel death penalty opinion of the modern era,” wailed Ian Millhiser in Think Progress. The decision ends more than two decades of appeals for convicted rapist and murderer Russell Bucklew, who at long last will soon receive his just deserts.

In 1996, Bucklew went on a rampage after his girlfriend tried to leave him. He chased her to a nearby house, where he shot and killed his neighbor before beating his girlfriend with a gun and raping her. Police apprehended Bucklew after a shootout, but he quickly escaped jail, at which point he attacked his girlfriend’s mother with a hammer. For 18 years Bucklew languished on death row. Then, just 12 days before his scheduled execution, he filed a suit to contest lethal injection as “cruel and unusual punishment.” A medical condition involving tumors on his neck, he claimed, might make execution painful.

Five years of litigation followed before the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision acknowledged the obvious. “The 8th Amendment has never been understood to guarantee a condemned inmate a painless death,” he wrote. “That’s a luxury not guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.” The vast majority of people throughout history, including especially Bucklew’s victims, have died in discomfort.

The Left flew to the rapist murderer’s defense. The Atlantic accused Gorsuch of “unusual cruelty,” while Slate claimed, “The Supreme Court’s conservatives just legalized torture.” They insisted the decision violates the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishment.” History refutes the claim. As Justice Gorsuch notes, not only does the Constitution allow for capital punishment, but at the time of ratification “death was the standard penalty for all serious crimes.” The Constitution does not excuse convicts from the gallows just because the noose might hurt their necks.

In 1958, Chief Justice Earl Warren offered leftist activists a tool with which to rewrite the Constitution by citing “evolving standards of decency” in Trop v. Dulles. Our primitive forebears might have tolerated capital punishment—indeed, they enshrined it in the Fifth Amendment—but we enlightened moderns know better what is truly meant by the words they wrote. Leftist governors throughout the country, most recently in California, have nullified capital punishment by simply refusing to enforce the law. Activists appear eager to apply those same “evolving standards of decency” at the federal level.

At the same time, left-wing activists have descended on Georgia. Hollywood stars Alyssa Milano, Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow, Alec Baldwin, and 100 other celebrities signed and circulated a petition threatening to boycott the state if the governor doesn’t veto a bill that would protect babies with a heartbeat from being murdered in the womb. “We cannot in good conscience continue to recommend our industry remain in Georgia,” wrote Milano. Keep killing babies, or the movie stars walk.

A society that bewails the execution of murderers and celebrates the slaughter of babies has lost the sense of justice. Such is the evolving standard of “evolving standards of decency.”

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