The death of U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist at 80 will focus attention on the Supreme Court’s declining enthusiasm for capital punishment. Rehnquist was a staunch advocate of the death penalty, but the court’s majority has expressed skepticism in cases involving juvenile offenders, the mentally ill, and other issues. Judge John Roberts of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, who has been nominated to fill the seat of retiring Sandra Day O’Connor and now could be tapped to replace Rehnquist, has not offered detailed views on capital punishment.
The Boston Globe notes that Rehnquist helped persuade the high court to relax some of the limits on police and prosecutors that had been imposed in the 1960s and ’70s. Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried said that Rehnquist “gradually cut back federal-court supervision of state prosecutions. [The death penalty ban] was reversed. And the limits upon prosecutors and police were rationalized and relaxed.” Over Rehnquist’s strenuous objections, the court struck down the death penalty for murders committed when a defendant was under 18 and for mentally retarded killers. This past term, it ordered a new trial for a condemned Texas killer who said prosecutors had engaged in racial bias in jury selection. ”I think in many respects, his hold on his court in the last few years has begun to slip away,” Fried said.