Washington Law Review


Eric Berger


Glossip v. Gross epitomizes judicial deference gone berserk. In rejecting an Eighth Amendment challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, the United States Supreme Court rested its holding on several forms of deference. Closer examination demonstrates that each of these unsupported deference determinations was, at best, contestable and, at worst, simply wrong. Far from being anomalous, such under-theorized deference reflects more generally the Court’s willingness to utilize various stealth determinations to manipulate outcomes in constitutional cases. The understandable concern that frivolous lethal injection challenges will clog courts and delay executions likely motivated the Court’s approach. Remarkably, though, the Court did not even attempt to distinguish humane execution protocols from dangerous ones. Many states, including Oklahoma, have repeatedly shown that they cannot be trusted to implement lethal injection procedures carefully. The Court’s deference turned a blind eye to this history and upheld a manifestly dangerous execution procedure. In so doing, the Court tried to shut down an entire category of litigation, thereby abdicating its constitutional responsibility to safeguard individual rights. Regardless of one’s views on capital punishment, Glossip v. Gross’s reflexive deference determinations collectively amount to gross error.

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