50 Pages Posted: 14 Jan 2014
Date Written: January 1, 2014
Since the 1990s, federal prosecutors have, with increasing frequency, sought the death penalty for federal offenses committed in and also punishable under the laws of non-death penalty states. This phenomenon has troubled federalism proponents, who have pointed out that federal prosecutors can use the federal death penalty to circumvent a state's decision to abolish capital punishment. Drawing on these scholars' works, defendants have argued that state law shields them from federal punishment. Courts have almost unanimously rejected such arguments, holding that state law cannot preclude the administration of federal punishment for federal offenses.
This article proposes a novel basis for a challenge to the federal death penalty's use in a non-death penalty state - the Supreme Court's reasoning in United States v. Windsor. In Windsor, the Court held that federal interference with a state law right arising in an area traditionally regulated by states is subject to heightened scrutiny under the Due Process Clause. This article argues that, in some instances, Windsor precludes federal capital prosecutions.
This article considers a Windsor-based motion to dismiss a notice of intent to seek the federal death penalty. The federal capital prosecution in a non-death penalty state interferes with a state law right to not be executed. As states have traditionally prosecuted violent murders, this right arises in an area traditionally regulated by states. Applying due process scrutiny, a court should ask whether a prosecutor's animus towards the state's lack of capital punishment motivated the prosecution in the first place, or whether there is an independent federal interest. If animus alone motivated the prosecution, then Windsor demands that the court reject the attempt to seek capital punishment.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Ross, Jonathan, The Marriage of State Law and Individual Rights and a New Limit on the Federal Death Penalty (January 1, 2014). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2378621 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2378621