By Emily Gold Boutilier

In one day, two U.S. Supreme Court dissents cited separate books by one Amherst professor.

[Law] Few professors ever see their scholarship appear in a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Rarer still: to have two books by one professor cited on the same day, in the same case, by two justices.

On June 29 Austin Sarat was cranking out two op-eds on the new U.S. Supreme Court decision Glossip v. Gross—which upheld the use of the drug midazolam in carrying out the death penalty— when a colleague sent him a congratulatory email. It said that Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor had each cited a Sarat book in their dissenting opinions.

Illustration of hand holding scales of justice

“I responded with a quick ‘thanks’ and went back to my writing about the case,” says Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science. Only after filing his op-eds did he go back and look for his name.

“For some legal academics, being cited in a Supreme Court opinion is a little like being anointed by the pope,” he says. For this particular legal academic? “I don’t write with the expectation that the Supreme Court justices are going to pay attention. But there was a moment of pleasure in realizing that this work was making a difference on a matter of tremendous legal and political consequence.”  

Breyer cited Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution, about then-Gov. George Ryan’s move to commute every death sentence in Illinois. Breyer referenced the section on Ryan’s reasoning: that it is cruel and unusual for victims’ families to go through legal limbo for the 20 years on average that inmates spend on death row.

Sotomayor cited the finding in Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty that the firing squad is more reliable than lethal injection.

Despite Glossip v. Gross, Sarat predicts an end to the U.S. death penalty “in the not-too-distant future.” He notes that executions have declined by half in 15 years.

On the day of the ruling he sent his own congratulatory emails—to the four Amherst students who’d worked on Gruesome Spectacles. Kate Blumstein ’13 responded first: “Coolest thing that has probably ever happened to me/ will ever happen. Wow.” Emily Gold Boutilier