Editorial: Unusual punishment, unusual Supreme Court justice
January 10, 2011 · Print This Article
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Observers of the U.S. Supreme Court might question why Justice Sonia Sotomayor advocated for a Louisiana inmate’s complaint of abuse by prison officials.
The more valid question that we can pose is this: Why didn’t the other eight justices join her?
Sotomayor was on target. Anthony C. Pitre’s constitutional rights were violated. He was subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” when prison officials took steps that jeopardized his health.
A New York Times article tracking hints of Sotomayor’s approach to cases before the court reported on her opinion challenging the court’s refusal to hear Pitre’s case.
Pitre had ceased taking his H.I.V. medicine to protest his transfer from one facility to another. In response, prison officials forced him to perform hard labor in 100-degree heat, and Pitre had to be treated in the emergency room twice as a result.
Lower courts argued that he created his own problems, but Sotomayer wrote, “Pitre’s decision to refuse medication may have been foolish and likely caused a significant part of his pain. But that decision does not give prison officials license to exacerbate Pitre’s condition further as a means of punishing or coercing him – just as a prisoner’s disruptive conduct does not permit prison officials to punish the prisoner by handcuffing him to a hitching post.”
Sotomayor’s opinion was based on the Eighth Amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
The judge who sentenced Pitre to prison did not sentence him to any special forms of abuse. A prison sentence is the punishment for his crime, not to force the inmate to perform hard labor or to do anything that will cause him injury.
Plenty of people believe that worrying about the Eighth Amendment is idiotic. These criminals didn’t care what they did to their victims. Why should we care about them?
On an emotional level, we should not care about them. However, our criminal justice system was created to bring order to our society. If we drag ourselves down to their level, we are no better than they are. In fact, we are allowing government employees to violate the law themselves.
The prison officials knowingly placed Pitre’s life at risk by forcing him to perform hard labor. They did it twice.
After the first time, they should have known that he could be harmed. In Pennsylvania, that translates to the criminal offense of reckless endangerment, and most other states likely provide for comparative offenses.
For that matter, any prison officials who did this or tolerated it should be prosecuted themselves. They committed a crime.
Sotomayor did not go this far, but she could have.
We need not ask why Sotomayor took this position. We need to ask why the other eight justices did not join her or at least give her view consideration.
Perhaps Pitre suffered no permanent harm, but the possibility was there because prison officials placed him in this position.
What is bothersome is that none of the other eight justices caught what Sotomayor did. They are experienced attorneys and judges and even attended elite law schools. Can’t they recognize when an inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights are being violated?
Maybe they did not bother with the case because there was no mention of permanent harm done to Pitre. Does that excuse the actions of prison officials?
At least four of the justices – Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Roberts – should not be on the court. Most court observers have mixed feelings about Anthony Kennedy, and I have never felt inspired by President Clinton’s appointees. Elena Kagen is brand new.
This episode suggests that Sotomayor feels passion for the concerns that shape cases that reach the court.
This does not mean she needs to follow a habitual ideology – actually, none of them should – but she is genuinely concerned with how the law impacts on average people.
Her style is reminiscent of Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan and Louis Brandeis.
It is a breath of fresh air.
About author Bruce S. Ticker, a Philadelphia freelance writer, can be reached at BTicker@comcast.net .