Death and Democracy

As a clerk and extern this semester, I have a great opportunity to spend four days a week in the Hartford legal community including two days a week in the Capitol’s Legislative Office Building.  Today was special.  Today the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on, among other things, the death penalty.  Connecticut is somewhat unique in that every bill considered by the General Assembly’s committees receives a public hearing.  Anyone – experts, lobbyists, or members of the general public – can sign up and speak on a bill or topic.  Anyway, the death penalty hearing brought out some heavy hitters on the topic including William Petit whose family was raped and murdered by two home invaders (one of which was recently sentenced to death), Jeffrey Meyer law professor at Quinnipiac and Yale law schools, Barry Scheck founder of the Innocence Project, and Robert Blecker a pro-death penalty law professor from New York Law School.

What I felt was interesting about the day was not the legal expertise on display, but the practical observations and sidenotes from watching (both in person and on television) over 6 hours of testimony.

Beginning with the good news, I got the impression that many of the committee members actually had an open mind and were contemplating much of the testimony.  A few prominent and frequent questioners appeared to already have their mind made up, but far more committee members admitted to not having decided how to vote. I found this fascinating.  In a world where so much of what happens is partisan and insincere, I watched a handful of state reps and senators contemplate and question witnesses and consider a variety of options.  Perhaps, my rose-colored glasses were in full form.  On the other hand, if true, real people making very important decisions for the future of Connecticut’s criminal justice system were open to legitimate debate.

Even while I was brightened by this, I was equally frustrated with the reactions of many of the other people in the gallery.  I know that individuals attracted to a public hearing on the death penalty will be arriving with an agenda and purpose already in hand.  Unfortunately, that passion manifests itself in humphs, grumblings, gasps, and sarcastic laughter during the testimony of smart people who happen to disagree.  Dismissive body language.  Vigorous head shaking.  Whispering the “correct” information to neighbors and the innocent law student seated in the row.   It reminded me that even where a glimpse of real democracy was possible; the gallery members represented the current culture in today’s politics.  Hyperbole was prevalent.

And this observation led me to another, I noticed how often the phrase “I think” began a sentence that was completely unhinged from data, statistics, and evidence.  Instead, everyone, especially the legislators, felt the need to describe what they believe about the death penalty or crime or murder.  “I think…” “I think…” “I think…” This phrase is an oddly popular yet useless comment in this type of setting.  I say this realizing that this entire blog is an electronic “I think.”  In a hearing designed to help the committee gather information, explore ideas and allow the public an opportunity to be heard, nothing that followed “I think” was something that the committee could use in their decision-making.

I was wondering how much this mentality – where everyone feels their opinion is unique and needs to be heard – is an obstacle to the natural compromise required in political discourse.  Of course the legislative process is impossible when a group of people are trying to develop the correct policy that reflects the individual beliefs and opinions of everyone in Connecticut.  Or for that matter in America.  This individuality, the thing that makes America great, is also the major difficulty in finding a middle ground when legislating.

We’re comfortable sharing our feelings on topics as wide-ranging as Charlie Sheen, the death penalty, and Angry Birds via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Everyone’s opinion has an outlet now.  I think this alters the way we conceive of politics.  Our expectations will make governing that much harder.

My experience at today’s hearing, largely with an older crowd, has made me wonder how this “I think” culture will make it even more difficult to legislate moving forward.  Moderates and, for lack of a better phrase, regular people are often complaining about the deep divide and bitterness between partisan Republicans and Democrats.  That divide and bitterness is real.  But negotiating is easier because there are two main camps and the party leaders are only using two “opinion” points.  What happens when our generation moves into leadership roles? Now, legislators will have to try to develop so-called good law that represents what is best for everyone in American while taking into account growing diversity of both culture and perspective.  Everyone is a party of one.

At the time of writing this, 11:28 PM, this public hearing is 2 minutes away from hitting it’s 12th hour.  Professor Robert Blecker has been testifying for about an hour.  Again, this has been fascinating and has challenged my own thoughts on capital punishment.  Today’s hearing also challenged issues of how we debate and make decisions in state politics (at least in Connecticut).  I found it to be an empowering, enlightening and engaging day.  The idealist in me decided this was interesting enough to write about.  Hopefully it was.  I guess the story isn’t over until we see how the Judiciary Committee and General Assembly respond over the next few weeks.  Right now, Connecticut still has the death penalty and less than three months to draft and pass a bill repealing it.  We’ll see.

2 responses to “Death and Democracy

  1. I love this Jeremy. It highlights one of the major problems with all democracy, not just American democracy. We are told that all opinions are equal, and people take this to mean that whatever they feel or think is valid, which it is not. Politics is not some wishy-washy thing floating around in ether, there are facts, statistics, findings, etc. It is entirely understandable to have a different opinion than someone else, but it is not okay to ignore the facts. Different opinions can derive from different goals and normative beliefs, but the facts must be the same. This is one of the most frustrating occurrences in my field. As a political scientist I spend my life answering questions of political fact. My desire is that people realize that politics can be subjected to science just like anything else. I have no problem when people have differing opinions than me or anyone else, but I become furious when people fall back on I think and I feel. So, to sum up this rambling rant, bravo!

  2. Thanks Chris. It’s great to hear your perspective as someone fighting that exact battle everyday. I think law school has sharpened this observation because many students will speak in class to the effect of “I think the judge got it wrong here” or “This just doesn’t seem right to me” but without a basis in law or argument. Simply an emotional or gut feeling that they wanted to express. Sometimes the professors are looking for that, often they are not. Similarly, we struggle with this in our politics. Everyone wants to offer their opinion, and rightly so, but it doesn’t seem like we understand that the final product – the policy of the state – needs to be able to accommodate what’s best for everyone in the State (or the country) and it can’t be perfectly tailored oftentimes. Our expectations need to come in line with the realities of complex society. Glad to hear that your work is helping us do that.

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