Ted Cruz doesn’t just support the death penalty, he loves it

Alright, I think I’m convinced: Ted Cruz is worse than Donald Trump.

As Jason Horowitz reports in a profile of Cruz’s time as a Supreme Court clerk for the New York Times, the current most hated man in Washington had an unusual and gleeful passion for the death penalty while serving under appellate Judge Mike Luttig and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rhenquist. So much so that it formed the foundation of his legal career. As Horowitz writes:

In Mr. Cruz’s time as a Supreme Court clerk, a coveted step in a legal career that he had meticulously plotted out, he showed his now familiar capacity to infuriate colleagues. He also worked hard to please his powerful boss, delved into the nuances of constitutional law for long, grueling hours and sought to smooth over harsh feelings at clerk happy hours.

But when he left, he was most remembered by his fellow clerks for his fervor for capital punishment cases, a cause that would define his legal career and help him break into politics.

As Texas solicitor general from 2003 to 2008, five of Mr. Cruz’s eight appearances before the Supreme Court were death penalty cases, including his successful advocacy for the preservation of the death penalty for a Mexican citizen convicted of raping and murdering two teenage girls. That case became a talking point in his campaign for Senate, just as his eye-for-an-eye sense of justice appeals to voters looking for a tough president.

As Horowitz explains, Cruz’s enthusiasm for capital punishment began to develop when Judge Luttig’s father was killed in an attempted carjacking (the carjacker was executed eight years later). After that, Cruz’s colleagues at the time told Horowitz, in his legal memos he “often dwelled on the lurid details of murders that other clerks tended to summarize in order to quickly move to the legal merits of the case.” For Cruz, capital punishment wasn’t just a legal issue; for him, the state’s ability to execute its own citizens was a deep, moral conviction.

That may explain why when Pope Francis criticized the death penalty during his visit to the United States last year, Cruz was one of the earliest and loudest voices defending the idea that if you kill someone, the state should be allowed to kill you back. Never mind that none of the actual arguments supporting this position hold up under scrutiny.

Look, it’s one thing to casually support the death penalty. Humans have a natural impulse for revenge, and the death penalty is at its core society’s thirst for bloodletting in the wake of particularly grievous crimes. Not everyone shares that moral intuition, and I think it’s reasonable to expect people to move past that gut feeling when they consider the implications of capital punishment in practice, but I get why gut-level support for the death penalty is a political opinion that some of us are inclined to hold.

It is quite another thing to be a death penalty enthusiast. That’s straight up sadism. From Horowitz’s article:

Mr. Cruz usually reserved his enthusiasm for his unsparing death penalty memos or the late nights when a prisoner from the appeals circuit under Chief Justice Rehnquist’s oversight was slated for execution. On those nights, when he was responsible for addressing the flurry of 11th-hour motions from defense lawyers, he would rouse the chief justice at home, give his recommendation, get the chief justice’s vote and then write up a memo that explained why the chief justice had voted to deny an emergency postponement of the execution.

Per custom, Mr. Cruz, whom some clerks recalled as speaking flippantly of the execution during those solemn nights, would circulate that memo to the other eight clerks on duty, who would then call their bosses to vote on the appeal.

Ted Cruz doesn’t just think (incorrectly) that the death penalty is a necessary deterrent for violent crime. And he doesn’t just think that the death penalty is a moral avenue of justice. Ted Cruz thinks that the death penalty is fun.

That isn’t normal, to say nothing of presidential.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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