Justice Alito: The Death Penalty ‘Concentrate[s] the Mind’

Supreme Court Case

In the Supreme Court’s most recent death penalty case, Justice Alito managed to include a reference to James Boswell’s famous quote that “When a man knows he is to be hanged … it concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

In Reed v. Goertz, No. 21-442 (April 19, 2023), the issue was whether death-row inmate Rodney Reed timely filed a federal court constitutional challenge to a Texas post-conviction procedure regarding the use of DNA evidence to prove innocence.

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Everyone agreed Reed had two years to file his federal court constitutional challenge. But the justices split on when the clock began to run. Writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh concluded Reed was timely because he filed within two years of the conclusion of all Texas state-court appeals.

Justice Alito dissented in part because Reed failed to explain why he didn’t file earlier and instead waited “until an execution date was set.” Quoting Boswell, Justice Alito scoffed: while that event may have “concentrated his mind wonderfully,” it did not excuse missing the deadline.

This was not the first time a justice relied on a James Boswell quote. In 1967, Chief Justice Warren relied on another famous Boswell quote, that “hell is paved with good intentions.” In that case, Chief Justice Warren insisted that, regardless of a prosecutor’s alleged “good faith,” the defendant’s criminal conviction needed to be reversed, or otherwise the defendant’s “road to prison” would be paved with the same “good intentions” as Samuel Johnson’s proverbial “road to hell.” Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109, 117 n.2 (1967) (Warren, C.J., concurring) (quoting J. Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 257 (Great Books ed. 1952)).

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The death penalty also previously inspired reliance on a famous quote. In 1985, Justice Brennan quoted French existentialist writer Albert Camus to advocate for the death penalty’s unconstitutionality. Justice Brennan offered a gruesome description of the mechanics of an execution (including how it sometimes caused the condemned man’s eyeballs to “pop out”), and then offered this Camus quote for the proposition that the public would be appalled if they knew the details: “The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” Glass v. Louisiana, 471 U.S. 1080, 1087 n.12 (1985) (Brennan, J., dissenting) (quoting A. Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Resistance, Rebellion, and Death 187 (1961)).

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