ACLU v. United States

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ACLU v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Decided August 19, 2020
Full case nameAmerican Civil Liberties Union v. United States of America
Docket no.21-03
Citations21-03 M.S.Ct. 1
ArgumentOral argument
Opinion announcementOpinion announcement
The death penalty per se constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Associate Justices
JJEagleHawk  · CuriositySMBC  · Joseph Ibney  · Dobs  · BSDDC  · Dewey Cheatem
Case opinions
MajorityIbney, joined by CuriositySMBC, Reagan0, JJEagleHawk (except Part III-A, ¶ 1)
PluralityIbney (Part III-A, ¶ 1), joined by CuriositySMBC, Reagan0
DissentBSDDC, joined by SHOCKULAR, Cheatem (in part)
DissentSHOCKULAR, joined by BSDDC, Cheatem (in part)
DissentCheatem, joined by BSDDC, SHOCKULAR (in part)
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. V, U.S. Const. amend. VIII
This case overturned a previous ruling or rulings
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)

American Civil Liberties Union v. United States, 21-03 M.S.Ct. 1 (2021), also known as In re: 18 U.S. Code §§ 3591 et seq., was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court on August 5, 2021, which held that capital punishment in the United States was contrary to the Eighth Amendment. The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, as a facial challenge to the federal death penalty statutes. The ACLU argued two distinct theories: that the death penalty was per se cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and that the disparate racial impact of the death penalty violated the Equal Protection Clause as reverse incorporated against the federal government.

In a majority opinion joined by three other justices, Associate Justice Ibney00 adopted the former of the two theories and held that the death penalty was no longer consistent with the "evolving standards of decency" standard previously established by the Court in Trop v. Dulles. This holding was based on what the opinion characterized as the lack of scientific evidence supporting the deterrent effect of the death penalty, the consensus of the state legislatures on abolition, and the trends of international law against capital punishment. However, the Court rejected the ACLU's alternate disparate impact theory, holding that a constitutional injury based in disparate impact is not cognizable under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Each of the three justices in the dissent wrote a separate opinion, in large part joining each other's opinions. Chief Justice SHOCKULAR and Associate Justice BSDDC criticized the majority's departure from stare decisis and reliance on personal moral considerations, arguing that the death penalty cannot be unconstitutional because it is expressly envisioned by the text of the Due Process Clause. Associate Justice Cheatem furthermore argued for the death penalty's permissibility under a retribution theory of punishment and expounded on the non-cognizability of disparate impact claims under the Fifth Amendment.

The decision was legally consequential, overruling Gregg v. Georgia and its progeny, but had limited practical impact as all states had previously abolished the death penalty and President NinjjaDragon had proclaimed a federal moratorium on executions.

See also