Catholic Judges and the Death Penalty

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Can Catholic judges, consistently with their faith, participate in death penalty cases?  Faithful Catholics who have considered the question in recent decades have reached different conclusions.  In 1998, Judge Amy Barrett, then a law clerk on the D.C. Circuit, co-authored an article concluding that it is immoral under Church teaching to directly participate in executions in a modern society with a functional prison system.  Accordingly, she concluded that Catholic trial judges cannot in good conscience issue a death sentence and have an obligation to recuse themselves from the sentencing phase of capital trials.  Appellate judges, on the other hand, need not recuse themselves in capital cases, because they do not directly issue death sentences.  Justice Antonin Scalia took a different view.  In a 2002 article, he asserted that if the death penalty were immoral under Church teaching, he could not participate in capital cases and would have an obligation to resign from the Supreme Court.  But because he believed Catholic teaching affirmed the legitimacy of capital punishment, he concluded that Catholic judges, both trial and appellate, could fully participate in capital cases at every stage.  Further complicating matters, Pope Francis has recently declared that the death penalty is “inadmissible”—a term whose significance is a matter of debate—and called on Catholics worldwide to seek the abolition of the death penalty.  Ryan Proctor joins us to discuss the Catholic Church’s teaching on capital punishment and its implications for Catholic judges.


Ryan Proctor, Associate, Jones Day


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