Justice Sotomayor’s Pro-Life Dissent

Justice Sotomayor’s Pro-Life Dissent January 16, 2021


Early this morning, at 1:23 AM, with just over a hundred hours left in his administration, Donald Trump’s phenobarbital killing spree came to an end.

The last man to die was Dustin Higgs, whose case I examined yesterday. His was the final federal execution scheduled before the inauguration of Joe Biden, who is against the death penalty. Of the sixteen people who were killed in federal executions in the past twenty years, all but three were killed by president Donald Trump’s justice department in the last seven months. The country is not safer because of these killings. No one is better off.

Yet again, last night, the Supreme Court of the United States stayed up late listening to last-minute litigation begging for a stay of execution, and they ruled that Higgs should die anyway. They did the same thing the day before for Corey Johnson, and the day before that for Lisa Montgomery. The pro-life conservative justices that Trump appointed always voted to let the prisoner die. I’ve heard several times lately that this isn’t their fault; they were just “following the law.” But the fact is, it’s perfectly legal for the Supreme Court to decline to hear a case. They just let the lower court’s ruling stand and don’t bother about it. That’s the law. They’ve done it plenty of times with any cases involving abortion, after all. They not only chose to do this when they could have chosen otherwise, they stayed up late to make sure they got the chance to do it. They worked hard to put these people to death, as did Trump’s Department of Justice.

The dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling was written by Justice Sonya Sotomayor, a Catholic. I’d like to encourage you to read the entire thing, as I found it to be a moving and genuinely pro-life document. Her dissent starts on Page Five of that document.

Sotomayor begins by writing out the names of everyone the Justice Department has killed in the past year. Then she condemns the “unprecedented rush of federal executions,” calling to mind the Catholic teaching in rash judgement. She denounces the courts’ rejections of the inmates’ claims for relief. She points out that the panic and suffering caused by phentobarbitol is a violation of the inmates’ eighth amendment rights. She decries the execution of Lisa Montgomery while Montgomery was psychotic, as any thinking person should. She also condemns the execution of Alfred Borgeois and Corey Johnson, both of whom were intellectually disabled. She also condemns the fact that Brandon Bernard was killed for a crime he committed at just eighteen years of age, and that the sentence was handed down partly due to false testimony and the withholding of exculpatory evidence.

I have been insisting since I began blogging in 2016, that the pro-life movement has no credibility if it weds itself unthinkingly to the Republican party, and to the conservative agenda of lip service to abortion while recklessly disregarding every other kind of human life. I feel that the events of 2020 and the first month of 2021 have proven me right in spades. The political party that the pro-life movement sold its last shreds of credibility to venerate and defend, has killed thirteen prison inmates in cold blood, caused Heaven only knows how many deaths due to negligence, and has not taken significant steps to end or limit abortion. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that during the term of President Trump, abortion rates have gone up. The pro-life movement– not the men and women working to help mothers and children in concrete ways but the mainstream, political entity calling itself the pro-life movement– is a failure and a confidence game, and indeed it’s worse than that. The pro-life movement has killed people.

Anyone bothering to speak out against this carnage is a real champion for human life.

I have hope that we may see the end of the death penalty in my lifetime. I believe that Justice Sotomayor’s dissent will be one of the reasons why.

I thank her for her genuinely pro-life witness in such a dreadful time.


Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.

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