Overturning Override: Why Executing a Person Sentenced to Death By Judicial Override Violates the Eighth Amendment


Judicial override is a practice by which a judge overrules a sentence decided by a jury. Perhaps the most alarming, infamous, and controversial form of judicial override occurs when a judge overrules a jury’s recommendation for life imprisonment and replaces it with the death penalty. The use of judicial override in capital punishment cases has only ever been allowed in four states: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, and Indiana.[1] As of 2017, all four of these states have officially abandoned the practice. However, thirty-five individuals who were sentenced to death via judicial override remain on death row awaiting execution.[2] Today, their lives hang in the balance as the following constitutional question remains: Does the execution of a person sentenced to death by judicial override violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution?

This Note argues that executing these thirty-five individuals who were sentenced to death by judicial override would, in fact, be a “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth Amendment and thus unconstitutional. Importantly, this Note is not arguing that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional; rather, the Note’s argument is centered around the specific constitutional issue of execution as the direct result of the pre-2017 practice of judicial override.

This Note’s argument proceeds in the following stages. Part I provides background information regarding the history of judicial override in four different states, a summary of relevant United States Supreme Court precedent, an overview of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the Court’s previous interpretations of the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishments.” Part II asserts that a punishment of death by judicial override is more objectionable than the death penalty itself, emphasizes the importance of jury sentencing, and calls attention to the presence of racial bias in judicial override. Additionally, Part II argues that the execution of a person sentenced to death by judicial override violates the Eighth Amendment under multiple constitutional theories, including living constitutionalism, the moral reading of the Constitution, and originalism. Part III briefly addresses counterarguments concerning adherence to Supreme Court precedent and federalism, and Part V concludes this Note by suggesting two potential solutions to the issue at bar.

          [1].      Michael L. Radelet, Overriding Jury Sentencing Recommendations in Florida Capital Cases: An Update and Possible Half-Requiem, 2011 Mich. St. L. Rev. 793, 794 (2011); Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 5, McMillan v. Alabama, 141 S. Ct. 876 (2020) (No. 20-193).

          [2].      Petition for Writ of Certiorari, supra note 1, at 6.

* Executive Senior Editor, Southern California Law Review, Volume 95; J.D. Candidate 2022, University of Southern California Gould School of Law; B.A. Political Science 2018, University of California, Los Angeles. Thank you to Gonzo for your unwavering support throughout my law school journey. I am also grateful to Professor Rebecca Brown for her guidance during this Note’s development. Finally, thank you to all of the Southern California Law Review editors for spending countless hours on the publication process.