Editorial Roundup: Tennessee

Kingsport Times-News. June 13, 2024.

Editorial: State laws cannot contradict the Constitution

Tennesseans expect members of their state government to always act within the framework set forth in the Constitution of the United States to which they swear their oath of office.

That would include rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, which, while they are not considered part of the Constitution itself, are part of U.S. constitutional law which is the legal framework that governs the interpretation and application of the Constitution.

Such was the case in 1977 when the Supreme Court ruled that the use of the death penalty was grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape, because it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The court ruled that “although rape deserves serious punishment, the death penalty, which is unique in its severity and irrevocability, is an excessive penalty for the rapist who, as such and as opposed to the murderer, does not unjustifiably take human life.”

In 2008, the Supreme Court extended that ruling to rape of a child, finding that the death penalty is unconstitutional for child rape when the victim does not die and death was not intended.

The court ruled that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment because it is disproportionate to the crime and goes against the national consensus to limit the death penalty to the worst offenses, such as murder.

Nonetheless, the Tennessee House and Senate this year passed legislation authorizing the death penalty for rape of a child 12 and under. Last month, Gov. Bill Lee signed it, making it state law in direct violation of constitutional law.

Tennessee’s action followed Florida’s passage of a similar law last year. Both laws contradict long-standing Supreme Court precedent holding the death penalty unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes.

Public opinion would surely uphold the death penalty for rape of a child because it’s difficult to imagine a more heinous crime, one that can cause a lifetime of physical and mental damage. But the only way that can become lawful is for the Supreme Court to uphold it, or, amend the U.S. Constitution.

Members of the Tennessee Legislature and Governor Lee knew that this law, which takes effect July 1, cannot stand. So why pass it in the first place?

State Sen. Janice Bowling suggested that “the atmosphere is different on the Supreme Court” and the bill’s sponsors were “simply challenging a ruling,” although Governor Lee denied signing the bill only to “test” it at the Supreme Court, which is what will happen the first time someone is sentenced under it.

The purpose of every state legislature is to craft and pass state laws. State laws are only applicable in the states where they are passed. They do not affect federal law, nor can they contradict the U.S. Constitution or any law passed by the U.S. Congress, as this one does.

The Tennessee Legislature and Governor Lee failed to act in the best interests of the state by putting a law on the books that directly contradicts constitutional law.

It was a waste of time, energy and money, as it will continue to be when it is overruled.