“[I]n the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”
Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote these eternal words in 1896, when he was dissenting from the case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which deemed segregation permissible under the Constitution. Justice Harlan accurately predicted that his view would prevail and that Plessy would be viewed as one of the Supreme Court’s most pernicious decisions.
More than a century later, Justice Harlan’s words do not always the reflect reality on the ground. African-Americans are four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession even though the two groups use the drug at the same rate. Moreover, an African-American is more likely to receive the death penalty than a white person even if he commits the same crime.
In Buck v. Davis, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to push the country in the right direction by reinforcing Justice Harlan’s observation that racism has no place in the criminal justice system, and that our Constitution requires racial equality and equal justice under the law.
Duane Buck was sentenced to death in 1997 for murdering his ex-girlfriend and her friend. His guilt is not in doubt; the only question concerns his sentence. Mr. Buck’s court-appointed trial lawyer—whose utter incompetence has been profiled in the New York Times—presented an “expert”, Dr. Walter Quijano, during the sentencing phase of Buck’s trial. Dr. Quijano testified that Mr. Buck was more likely to reoffend because he was black. For a Texas jury to sentence an individual to death, it must find that he is likely to commit violent criminal acts in the future. Having heard Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the jury found that Buck was likely to be violent in the future and sentenced him to death.
Years later, Texas recognized the prejudicial effect of Dr. Quijano’s testimony. The state’s then Attorney General, now Senator, John Cornyn agreed to new sentencing hearings in all of the cases in which Dr. Quijano testified. The state kept its word for six other defendants but reneged on one—Duane Buck. Mr. Buck has challenged his sentence several times, losing most recently in the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In an opinion by Judge Roy Smith, the Fifth Circuit boldly claimed, “Buck has not made out even a minimal showing that his case is exceptional,” and denied Mr. Buck’s request for relief. Mr. Buck’s life, quite literally, rests in the hands of the Supreme Court’s justices, who heard arguments on his case last week.
Let’s delve into the oral argument.