When President Barack Obama first responded to the retirement of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter he outlined his preferred judging philosophy:
I will seek …. someone who understands justice and isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book, it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s live whether they can make a living and care for their families whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation, I view that quality of empathy of understanding and identifying what people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.
Enter District Judge Robert Chatigny who the President has nominated to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Be warned the video to the right highlighting Chatigny’s judicial record is not for the faint of heart. It contains graphic details of heinous crimes. Fortunately Heritage Center for Legal and Judicial Studies Deborah O’Malley has also summarized the controversy:
In an infamous 2005 case, Chatigny, a judge on the U.S. District Court in Connecticut, fought tooth and nail to remove a serial rapist and murderer from death row. Chatigny argued that the murderer, known as the Roadside Strangler, “never should have been convicted” and certainly should not have received the death penalty. Why? Because he was “sexually sadistic.” Yes, according to this judge, the fact that the murderer was driven by excitement at the suffering of his victims somehow makes him less culpable for the lives he took.
Here’s a quick history of the case. Michael Ross confessed to the rape and murder of eight young women. A jury determined that his actions warranted the death sentence—the first handed down in Connecticut in over 40 years. After 20 years of failed appeals by his attorneys, Ross decided to accept the sentence. Days before the scheduled execution, the public defender’s office requested a stay of the execution—against Ross’s wishes—arguing that “death row syndrome” had caused Ross to fall into suicidal despair. Chatigny granted the stay based on this strained argument. The U.S. Supreme Court did not buy Chatigny’s foray into bench-chair psychology and ultimately vacated the stay.
The day before Ross’s execution was to take place, Chatigny held a conference call with members of the public defender’s office and Ross’s attorney, T.R. Paulding. He demanded to know why Paulding was not taking further action and accused Paulding of being complicit at Ross’s attempt to gain “state-assisted suicide.” During the call, he threatened Paulding saying, “I’ll have your law license,” adding that, “if Michael Ross is dead, oh, boy it’s not going to be nice for anybody.”
It was during this call that Chatigny made the outrageous claim that Ross’s sexual sadism made him less culpable for his crime. Not only was he less culpable but, in Chatigny’s words, he was the “least culpable of anyone on death row.” Chatigny further asserted that Ross’s sexual sadism was “clearly a mitigating factor.” If this standard was actually applied in criminal law cases, imagine how many rapists and murderers would serve even shorter sentences than they already do.
Read O’Malley’s full article, here. Last Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Chatigny’s nomination on a 11-7 party line vote.