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Death Penalty

Stevens Takes on a Public Role and Explains His Opposition to the Death Penalty

Posted Nov 29, 2010 10:44 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Justice John Paul Stevens has been more visible since his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, and now he’s taking on an even higher-profile role with a new book review and an appearance on 60 Minutes.

The topics ranged from the Bush v. Gore decision to the First Amendment rights of corporations in Stevens’ interview with 60 Minutes, according to a story on the CBS News website. Stevens told 60 Minutes he opposed the Supreme Court decision that resulted in an election win for George W. Bush and the more recent decision overturning laws that restricted corporate campaign spending.

The New York Times noted Stevens’ new public role. “He is forging a new model of what to expect from Supreme Court justices after they leave the bench, one that includes high-profile interviews and provocative speeches,” the story says.

The Times says Stevens’ book review, published in the New York Review of Books, helps explain why he changed his mind about the death penalty in 2008, when he concluded it is unconstitutional. Stevens believed that the Supreme Court had dismantled death-penalty safeguards, creating a system that is “shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria,” in the words of the Times.

The book Stevens reviewed is Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition by New York University law professor David Garland.

In the 60 Minutes interview, Stevens said the Supreme Court should never have issued a stay preventing a Florida recount in the contested presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Later a court majority ruled that the recount wouldn’t be fair, a decision Stevens called “profoundly wrong.”

Stevens also criticized the Supreme Court’s First Amendment decision in Citizens United, which overturned legislation restricting corporate money in politics. He told 60 Minutes that an election is similar to a debate, and Congress ought to be allowed to set the rules. “And if the debate is distorted by having one side have so much greater resources than the other, that sometimes may distort the ability to decide the debate on the merits,” he said.

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