Amherst College Professors Nasser Hussain and Austin Sarat Consider “The Literary Life of Clemency” in TriQuarterly

August 16, 2006
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AMHERST, Mass.—Nasser Hussain, assistant professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, and Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College, have written an essay titled “The Literary Life of Clemency: Pardon Tales in the Contemporary United States” in TriQuarterly 124, the most recent issue of the international journal of writing, art and cultural inquiry published at Northwestern University.

Hussain and Sarat examine the writings of three state governors—the elected officials in this country who enjoy the “sovereign prerogative” in their power to pardon criminals lawfully tried, convicted and sentenced—who justified in their narratives their seeming “disregard of settled law.” In 2003 Illinois governor George Ryan commuted 164 death sentences and delivered a 22-page, hour-long speech he titled “I Must Act.” Twenty years after he left the governor’s office in California, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown published a memoir, Public Justice, Private Mercy (1989), that examined his conflicting treatment of various clemency pleas. An earlier governor of Ohio, Michael DiSalle, had written The Power of Life or Death (1965), in which he expressed the agonies of such decisions.

The governors’ literary efforts seek “some rhetorical trope that connects what is in the end a personal choice with larger cultural and political values,” Hussain and Sarat say “In the face of clemency’s lawful lawlessness and its seemingly anomalous place in a constitutional democracy,” they conclude, “contemporary pardon tales provide some semblance of order.”

Hussain, who received a B.A. degree from Yale University (1988), has both an M.A. (1990) and a Ph.D. (1995) from the University of California at Berkeley. Before coming to Amherst in 1994, Hussain was a fellow with the Harvard University Society of Fellows. His 2003 book, The Jurisprudence of Emergency, analyzed the historical uses of a host of emergency powers, ranging from the suspension of habeas corpus to the use of military tribunals.

Sarat, who has taught at Amherst since 1974, is author, co-author or editor of more than 50 books, including When the State Kills and Law, Violence, and the Possibility of Justice. He was the co-author of Something to Believe In: Politics, Professionalism and Cause Lawyering (2004) and co-editor of From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State (2006) and Law on the Screen (2004). His most recent book is Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution (2006). His teaching has been featured in The New York Times and on the NBC Today Show. Sarat was the co-recipient of the 2004 Reginald Heber Smith Award given biennially to honor the best scholarship on “the subject of equal access to justice,” and has served as president of the Law and Society Association and of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities.

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