Judgment day.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 15 2005 4:24 PM

Judgment Day

Arnold's star turn as a California Supreme Court justice.

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In fact passages of this executive opinion can barely contain their disgust for the petitioner. The statement of facts recounts the murders, closing with the haunting image of Williams laughing for six minutes straight when talking about the sound the victim made as he was shot. The statement plays up the racial animosity in the murders, recalling when Williams referred to his Chinese victims as "Buddha-heads." These details aren't necessary to the governor's point, except to set up his unspoken standard—that it's doubtful anyone could have redeemed himself from these crimes. They are designed to provoke outrage, creating the right political atmosphere to allow the state to respond to Williams' barbarism with its own.

The statement further addresses what was thought to be Williams' strongest argument—that he would do more good for society alive than dead. Courts engage in this kind of utility analysis all the time. Some judges, like Richard Posner, celebrate it. But courts never directly address the value of a person. They may do so indirectly—rewarding battered women with a special claim to self-defense when they shoot their no-good abusive husbands, for example—but a court will rarely state, head-on, that a person does or does not have moral worth.

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Schwarzenegger does so here by blatantly opining that it's unclear whether Williams actually did any good in the world. Children's books? Mentioned and dismissed. Nobel Peace Prize nominations? Relegated to a footnote that states they have no persuasive weight. Like a punch to the stomach, Schwarzenegger reasons, again in the impersonal third person, "the continued pervasiveness of gang violence leads one to question the efficacy of Williams' message." Williams couldn't stop the war he helped to start, says the governor, and so he must die.

Through clemency, our justice system occasionally redeems itself for mistakes it has made. But it presents a philosophical dilemma: Do we think the individuals it convicts are similarly capable? Because juries cannot revisit cases 20 or 30 years after handing down death sentences, only governors (and the president) are given the power to venture the answers to these questions. By addressing such questions, as a court and not as a king, Schwarzenegger finally gave himself, and maybe other elected leaders, permission to start engaging these issues again, even if they need to don imaginary judicial robes to do so.

Judy Coleman is a third-year student at Yale Law School. She is organizing the Yale Law Journal's Symposium on Executive Power, to be held this March.

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