Dispassionate debate at the Supreme Court

Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Jan. 7 as justices inside took a look at whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. (CNS/Bob Roller)“Just the facts, ma’am,” Detective Jack Webb used to say on “Dragnet.”

That’s the safest approach to reporting on oral arguments before the Supreme Court. Leave the analysis to the pundits.

So it was with a fair amount of thought that I used the word “dispassionate” in a headline and news story from yesterday’s oral argument in Baze v. Rees, a case about the constitutionality of the lethal injection method used in 36 states.

Another observer might contend that the oral argument was full of passion, with repeated references to the “excruciating pain” experienced when the lethal injection procedure goes wrong at an execution.

Justice Antonin Scalia, always blunt, wondered where it’s written in the Constitution that an execution must be painless.

After all, he said, “it’s not surgery,” where the goal is for the patient to live. What difference does it make if an inmate dies painfully, as long as that wasn’t the intention of the executioners, he wondered.

That’s when the word “dispassionate” first occurred to me. Then there was the general disconnect in the courtroom.

What seemed obvious to me — it’s a human being’s life the justices were debating how to end — never seemed to be the point. Actually, the case could affect most of the 3,350 people currently on death row and others who will follow them there.

Granted, the legal issue before the court was about the procedures, not the morality of capital punishment. And the Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that they prefer to be concerned with only the narrowest interpretations of the Constitution necessary.

It’s a “just the facts, ma’am,” world they inhabit.

Even the attorney for Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling, the two Kentucky inmates who are appealing the method of their planned executions, never said a word to connect those living, breathing, feeling men to the clinical system of killing being evaluated Indeed, the only mention of their names was in calling the title of the case.

It was a case argued on policies and process, statistical chances of error and how quickly the state can get back to the business of killing people without all the fuss over whether the procedure might be too cruel.

Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling have accepted their convictions for their crimes. They’re prepared to spend their lives in prison, if their executions are set aside. Based upon the way the justices were talking, this case may not even answer the question they hoped would save them from execution.

It was striking that amid the legal debate about how to kill them, nobody thought it important to mention them.

PHOTO: Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Jan. 7 as justices inside took a look at whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. (CNS/Bob Roller)

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