MCCLESKEY ACCUSED Justice Powell and The Moral Price of Institutional Pride

Josh Bowers
2022 American Journal of Law and Equality  
In McCleskey v. Kemp, 1 the Supreme Court effectively "closed the courthouse doors" to constitutional claims of systemic racism in the criminal-legal system. 2 The defendant, Warren McCleskey, had offered a sophisticated academic study demonstrating pronounced racial skews in the administration of capital punishment in Georgia. Consistent with social science before and since, the study showed that the race of the victim was the most significant variable in determining whether a murder defendant
more » ... faced or received a sentence of death. Remarkably, the Court credited the study's robust findings; yet in an opinion authored by Justice Lewis F. Powell, a five-Justice majority held the study largely irrelevant, concluding that its statistics could demonstrate neither "exceptionally clear proof" of purposeful discrimination to establish an equal protection claim nor a "substantial risk" of "arbitrary and capricious" punishment to establish a claim of cruel and unusual punishment. 3 *F.D.G. Ribble Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law. Many thanks to Elana Oser and Bria Smith for their exceptional research assistance. Thanks also to
doi:10.1162/ajle_a_00034 fatcat:mp3njbuqo5cd3kmtviwpty3cmu