1963 October 21

Supreme Court Justice Goldberg Invites Constitutional Challenges to the Death Penalty


In a dissent in Rudolph v. Alabama, decided on this day, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg raised questions about the constitutionality of the death penalty, virtually inviting civil rights activists to bring lawsuits. Goldberg wrote that “in light of the trend both in this country and throughout the world against punishing rape by death, does the imposition of the death penalty by those States which retain it for rape violate evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of [our] maturing society.”

Historians of the death penalty generally argue that Goldberg’s very public hint sparked the litigation that led to the major court decisions in Furman v. Georgia (June 29, 1972) and Gregg v. Georgia (July 2, 1976). In those decisions the Court ruled that the manner in which the death penalty had been used violated both the Fourteenth and Eighth Amendments, and required formal procedures to guide courts in imposing the death penalty in order to curb arbitrariness and discrimination.

Read: David Stebenne, Arthur J. Goldberg: New Deal Liberal (1996)

Watch of video on the legacy of Justice Goldberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXryXRuVgls

Learn more at the Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/

Read: David Oshinsky, Capital Punishment on Trial: Furman v. Georgia and the Death Penalty in Modern America (2010)

Learn more: Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (2002)

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