When Justice John Paul Stevens retired in 2010 plenty of people had asserted the notion that he had changed. Undeniably Stevens had changed positions on the death penalty, but Stevens himself was always adamant that he didn’t change, the Court did. But unequivocally when Stevens was leaving the Court, he held the notion of several of his peers 35 years into the past.

In 1976, two cases changed the face of punishment in America. For four years, capital punishment, also known as the death penalty had been ruled unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which strictly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” Although its clear that these types of punishments were forbidden, what classified as cruel or unusual (or whether a punishment had to be both) has been subject to centuries-long discussion. Those two aforementioned cases were Gregg v. Georgia and Jurek v. Texas. Justices Stevens, Stewart and Powell wrote a plurality opinion overturning death penalty precedent, again allowing the punishment to be used.

Over the next 30-or-so years, Justice Stevens slowly but surely drifted from his original opinion. It was apparent he was becoming frustrated. When Stevens overruled precedent, he did so believing that the Court would uphold the rigorous framework the plurality designed for the death penalty.

In numerous cases, the Court tried again and again go against his views on the types of crimes and persons who could receive the death penalty, the ways it could be administered and the acceptable procedure for selection of the death penalty. There were successful attempts to apply the death penalty to the mentally ill (which was eventually overruled), allow judges to apply the death penalty over a jury explicitly rejecting it and the allowance of racial bias in the crimes considered for the death penalty.

Eventually, in a case called Baze v. Rees, Justice Stevens could no longer accept impermissibly loose standards for the death penalty. He ruled to keep capital punishment only to abide by precedent, but called into question the very constitutional foundations and purposes the death penalty serves.


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