Candidate Cruz's long-held support for capital punishment may have helped build his career but today, given the shift in public attitudes, it could be the kiss of death in the general election.
Since the time he was a Supreme Court clerk for Chief Justice Rehnquist, Presidential candidate Ted Cruz has been an ardent supporter of the death penalty. The adjective may actually be an understatement.
In some ways, Supreme Court clerks have the power of life and death in their hands. They are charged with evaluating death row petitions and issuing memos about the cases. Such memos normally consist of a brief review of the facts and then a dispassionate legal analysis as to whether the court should hear the case.
Cruz took that responsibility seriously. From what you read, his determination to justify the death penalty in the cases before him was a bit unseemly. Many who worked with Ted Cruz as a clerk, felt that he took a personal interest in highlighting the most gruesome aspect of each case.
A New York Time article this month explains that this kind of conduct did not go unnoticed.
In interviews with nearly two dozen of Mr. Cruz’s former colleagues on the court, many of the clerks working in the chambers of liberal justices, but also several from conservative chambers, depicted Mr. Cruz as “obsessed” with capital punishment. Some thought his recounting of the crimes — “dime store novel” was how one described his style — seemed more appropriate for a prosecutor persuading a jury than for a law clerk addressing the country’s nine foremost judges.
The Times article paints an unflattering portrait of Cruz as a clerk, infuriating his co-workers, always striving to ingratiate himself with the higher-ups and later trying to smooth ruffled feathers during happy hours. (Frankly, he sounds, according to the piece, exactly like the kind of co-worker everybody ends up despising.)
To his credit, Cruz devoted "long, grueling hours" scouring the nuances of constitutional law in an effort to support the use of capital punishment.
When he left, he was most remembered by his fellow clerks for his fervor for capital punishment cases, a cause that would define his legal career and help him break into politics.
Advocacy of capital punishment has long been associated with a tough stand on crime. And being tough on crime has always played well in Cruz's home state of Texas.
While governor of the Lone Star state, George W. Bush actually mocked- with smirks a convicted murderer, Karla Faye Tucker who had begged for clemency. Under his leadership, Texas executed 152 prisoners, more than any previous governor in modern American history. That didn't hurt his chances when he was running for president.
That was over 15 years ago. Today that record of "achievement" would be under a lot more election-time scrutiny.
The problem for Mr. Cruz is that on a variety of issues American attitudes are undergoing some fairly adjustments, from same-sex marriage to Planned Parenthood. The death penalty is also on that list.
A number of national surveys have strongly suggested that support for capital punishment in on the wane. For example, a new poll by ABC News and the Washington Post has revealed that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole (52%) as punishment for convicted murderers, with just 42% preferring the death penalty.
That's important because it would mark equaling the lowest level of support in polls going back to the early 1980s.
In states that do not have capital punishment, respondents were more likely to prefer life without parole (58%), with only 38% selecting the death penalty. Among the groups that had stronger than average support for life without parole were women (57%), nonwhites (65%), and Democrats (67%).
A recent Gallup poll found that support for the death penalty in the United States dropped by two percentage points over the last year and opposition rose to its highest levels since 1972. In that year, in the landmark case, Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238)) the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty statutes were unconstitutional.
After a ten-year moratorium, states were given more statutory latitude when sentencing.
(You can find the full story on the history of capital punishment here.)
(You can find the full story on the history of capital punishment here.)
Back to the Gallup poll:
Gallup reports that 61% of Americans say they favor the death penalty, down from 63% last year and near the 40-year low of 60% support recorded in 2013. Support was 19 points below the 80% who told Gallup in 1994 that they supported capital punishment. 37% said they opposed the death penalty, the most in 43 years and 21 points above levels reported in the mid-1990s. Death penalty support was lower and opposition higher among racial minorities than among whites.
Gallup also noted that a majority of African Americans (55%) oppose the death penalty while 68% of whites say they support it.
Death Penalty and Race
Another poll painted an even starker picture of the racial divide on this issue.
According to the 2015 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans (52%) prefer life without parole to the death penalty to capital punishment. Interestingly, this preference was related to racial justice and the numbers for and against capital punishment differed greatly according to race.
A majority of surveyed Americans agreed with the statement:
"A black person is more likely than a white person to receive the death penalty for the same crime"
Surprising? Perhaps. But even more surprisingly, a full 82% of African Americans agreed with the statement and 59% of Hispanics. The sad truth is, African Americans are simply stating a fact of life, not merely an opinion.
When cross-referenced according to party, 64% of Republicans disagreed with the statement on racial disparities, as compared to 28% of Democrats. Independents were evenly divided.
Studies say yes. Research by Amnesty International has found that the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim. There's more:
From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to jury sentencing, African-Americans are treated more harshly when they are defendants, and their lives are accorded less value when they are victims. All-white or virtually all-white juries are still commonplace in many localities.
- A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American.
- A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.
- A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.
The debate cuts across party lines too. Overall, about two-thirds (65%) of Democrats said they preferred life without parole while 67% of Republicans said they preferred the death penalty.
These numbers foretell an interesting scenario if Ted Cruz somehow manages to wrestle the nomination out of the hands of Donald Trump. Support for the death penalty might help Cruz win the nomination but it will most certainly have an adverse impact on his ability to win the presidential election.
The reason for this is clear: when it comes to the African-American vote, capital punishment- the issue that Ted Cruz has firmly promoted for most of his career- is a killer issue for a party. And keep in mind, a presidential candidate is no longer able to win the election based solely on the white vote.
Unfortunately for Mr.Cruz who has been so outspoken in favor of the capital punishment, there is a strong likelihood that this issue will play a role in the upcoming election. Seven states have already abolished the death penalty since 2007. In 2014, More and more U.S. states are abandoning the death penalty,
Altogether 19 U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia) have abolished the death penalty, and six more states have not carried out an execution in 10 years or more. In 2014, only seven states carried out any executions at all. In May 2015, Nebraska became the most recent state to abolish the death penalty.
In fact, death sentences are at their lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated. This is in line with the general questioning of the impartiality of the US courts and cited examples of miscarriage of justice.
The Risk to the GOP
As a candidate, Ted Cruz has a lot of problems and many of them are not going to be easily mended, resolved or kept hidden. First of all, he isn't a particularly likable guy. If Trump keeps his promise, Cruz could face a legal challenge to his nomination.
In addition, as we have seen, he is on the wrong side of a public opinion on a variety of subjects. On the basis of his position on capital punishment alone, the nomination of Cruz is going to be fraught with risks. The GOP could easily lose the minority vote across the board.
Worst of all, there's real no alternative route for Cruz. Without losing total credibility- already a thing in short supply in the Republican party- Cruz will be unable to change the death penalty position. It was a subject he had once built his career on.
After all, this is still the clerk who so ardently to find a credible rationale for putting people to death.