The Death Penalty and the Fifth Amendment

Blocher, Joseph | December 15, 2016

Can the Supreme Court find unconstitutional something that the text of the Constitution “contemplates”? If the Bill of Rights mentions a punishment, does that make it a “permissible legislative choice” immune to independent constitutional challenges? Recent developments have given new hope to those seeking constitutional abolition of the death penalty. But some supporters of the death penalty continue to argue, as they have since Furman v. Georgia, that the death penalty must be constitutional because the Fifth Amendment explicitly contemplates it. The appeal of this argument is obvious, but its strength is largely superficial, and is also mostly irrelevant to the claims being made against the constitutionality of capital punishment. At most, the references to the death penalty in the Fifth Amendment may reflect a Founding Era assumption that it was constitutionally permissible at that time. But they do not amount to a constitutional authorization; if capital punishment violates another constitutional provision, it is unconstitutional. And once that point is conceded, the Fifth Amendment Argument does very little work. There might be good arguments for the constitutionality of the death penalty, but the Fifth Amendment is not among them.