Today’s Washington Times contains two pieces about the disgraceful action of outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan in commuting all Illinois death sentences. David Limbaugh focuses on the fact that Ryan has abused his power by usurping the functions of the judiciary and the legislature. Ryan was trying to single-handedly outlaw the death penalty in Illinois, something that manfestly is not his proper function. Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg reminds us of the horrible crimes that some of those receiving clemency indisputably committed. It isn’t pretty. Goldberg also speculates about Ryan’s motives, suggesting that the outgoing Governor may have been prompted in part by his own difficulties with the law in connection with a corruption scandal. However, there is no need to posit any motive beyond a combination of muddled thinking and meglomania. Nor do Ryan’s motives matter.
To me, the upshot of what Limbaugh and Goldberg tell us is this: we have ceded to the state the power to punish those who injure us and our loved ones on the assumption that these critical decisions will made consistent with community norms enforced through trial by jury. Ryan has violated these assumptions, replacing community norms with his own personal values. Thus, he has undermined the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, including the basis for not taking the law into one’s own hands. There is little a governor can do that is more damaging and less moral than this.
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