Mitch McConnel’s rationale on appointing Supreme Court justices in the last year of a president’s term just isn’t rational. In 2016 he refused to hold hearings on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, claiming that the nomination should be made by the winner of the coming presidential election, which certainly wasn’t going to be Obama.
In 2020 he pushed for the appointment of a Supreme Court justice a month before the election. He didn’t make the argument he made in 2016 because the next president might not be Trump. He went to some lengths to justify his reversal of rationale, but did it even matter?
In 2016 he denied Obama’s appointee because he could. In 2020 he pushed Trump’s nominee because he could. But politicians don’t say, “I did it because I could,” they offer a reason — any reason — and it serves to make it justifiable to much of the public.
That is politics at its most cynical. For just plain meanness it takes the cake. But it isn’t cruel. Cruel came with the resumption of killing (we call it “executing” because it’s a nicer thought) condemned federal prisoners, after a 17 year hiatus, for political gain. Some Presidents start wars to make a case for their re-election, some kill prisoners to make them appear “tough on crime.”
But once the election is over and they have lost, the point has been made, and also lost, and the lame duck President stops taking people’s lives to establish his credentials. Most of them stop, anyway, but in 2020 with the election over and lost by Trump, the executions continue, and that hasn’t happened for over 100 years.
After Trump’s loss Attorney General Bill Barr announced that there would be five more executions before Trump left office, three of them the week before Biden, who now opposes the death penalty, is inaugurated.
And here’s the rub. In 1994 then Senator Joe Biden co-sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Included in that legislation was the Federal Death Penalty Act which established — or re-established — 60 capital offenses. In short, it expanded the types of crimes for which the federal government could seek the death penalty, which Biden now opposes.
Do these prisoners deserve to die for their crimes? That’s not the question. The question is, do we as a nation want to give our moral support to our government’s taking of life for a crime committed? In the 2007 debate on eliminating the Montana death penalty, Senator Jim Shockley, a Republican from Victor, Marine Corps officer and Purple Heart recipient, began his speech in favor of abolishing the death penalty in Montana by saying, as closely as I can recall, “Excepting in warfare, I don’t think that government should engage in the business of killing people.”
Federal executions had not been performed for 17 years until the resumption of the practice on July 14 of this year. Since 1927, 47 prisoners have been executed by the U. S. government, 10 of them in 2020. After the election, Barr announced the execution dates for five more federal prisoners. Two have since been executed.
It has every appearance that they are being executed as a way to punish Joe Biden for winning the election, otherwise, what’s the rush and why those five? There are currently 52 prisoners on federal death row. Most of them have been there a long time. Of the three currently scheduled for execution, their death sentences were imposed 12, 20, and 25 years ago.
Their lives are being used as pawns in a game of revenge, and it’s not right.
If indeed Trump wants to use these prisoners as pawns to punish Biden, he could just as well accomplish that by commuting their sentences to life in prison. Why? Because Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill is what put them on death row, and Trump could take them off of it. It would make for a powerful exit. It would create a better legacy to leave to history … and he would still have his revenge.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.