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Important U.S. Supreme Court Cases: McClesky v. Kemp (1987)

Posted by Matt Schmidt | Apr 17, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Gist: In Georgia, a black man was convicted of murdering a white man and was sentenced to the death penalty. The black man appealed, claiming that the death penalty had a racially discriminatory impact in violation of the 14th amendment because it applied disproportionately in cases where the victim was white. The Supreme Court held that laws must have a discriminatory impact and discriminatory purpose in order to be unconstitutional. Because there was no evidence of a discriminatory purpose behind sentence, the Court ruled the death penalty was constitutional.

The Details:

Warren McClesky was convicted in Georgia for robbery and the murder of a white police officer. He was sentenced to death.  A study revealed that a person convicted of a murdering a white victim was more than four times more likely to receive the death penalty than a victim of any other race. Mr. McClesky appealed his sentence, arguing that the death penalty was racially discriminatory and in violation of the 14th Amendment.

Following the reasoning from the Davis decision,  the Supreme Court held that the death penalty sentencing was not unconstitutional solely because it had a discriminatory impact; appellant must prove that the purpose or motive behind sentencing was discriminatory as well. In other words, appellant must prove that law officials had a concious, deliberate bias due to race in applying the death penalty.The Court found no discriminatory purpose behind the sentencing.

Like the Davis decision, this ruling puts a limit on the Equal Protection Clause and makes it incredibly difficult for plaintiffs or appellants  to challenge Federal laws as discriminatory. Officials not going to outwardly admit they are racist or that the purpose behind any law is to discriminate, so how are the victims supposed to prove that the law was intentionally created to cause discrimination? Further, why should the purpose of the law matter if the result is discriminatory? Assuming the original intent of creating a law was not to discriminate, but the effect of the law ends up causing discrimination, shouldn't the impact of the law matter more than why it was created? Doesn't the Court's line of reasoning conflict with the purpose of equal protection? These questions and many others have been raised by critics of the logic behind the Court's opinion.

It is important to note that the Court did not have to rule this way--there was plenty of legal authority to hold discriminatory impact alone is sufficient to violate Federal law.

About the Author

Matt Schmidt

Matt graduated from the James E Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in passing the Arizona bar exam in 2010. Matt's primary interest in law focuses on general personal injury and insurance bad faith.

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