July 7, 2015

By Emily Gold Boutilier


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

On June 29, Austin Sarat was cranking out two op-eds on the U.S. Supreme Court decision Glossip v. Gross— which that day upheld the use of the drug midazolam in carrying out the death penalty— when a congratulatory email appeared in his inbox. It said that Justices Steven Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor had each cited a Sarat book in their dissenting opinions. Sarat had read both dissents, “but because I was under the gun on these deadlines,” he’d missed the citations.

“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,” Sarat says. “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 the 2003 move by Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute every death sentence in that state. Breyer referenced the section about Ryan’s reasoning: that it is cruel and unusual for crime 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 significantly more reliable than lethal injection. Sarat wrote that book with four Amherst students. “To see work that comes out of a liberal arts college, not a research university, being noticed by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court,” he says, “vindicates the pride that Amherst rightly takes in the scholarship of its faculty and the opportunity it affords undergraduates to participate in that research.”

Despite Glossip v. Gross, Sarat predicts that “in the not too distant future the death penalty will be gone in the United States.” In the last 15 years, he points out, the number of death sentences in the nation has declined by more than two-thirds; executions have declined by half.

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