Wednesday, the College of William and Mary’s Young Democrats hosted a “Conversation on Upcoming Supreme Court Cases” led by visiting instructor Jackson Sasser.
The event was open to all students and highlighted a variety of controversial issues. Sasser opened with a conversation on the death penalty, a topic that he teaches a senior seminar on at the College.
He discussed several recent cases in which men have been released after serving decades in prison, primarily due to failures in the justice system.
Executions in the United States totaled 35 in 2014, the lowest it has been in 20 years, while death row exonerations were seven in total.
Sasser said he believes that there is a move away from the death penalty in the United States that follows the pattern of other developed nations worldwide. He said he thinks the Supreme Court decisions are an important indicator for the future and that is why he decided to speak at the event.
“I think the courts are all the time, in all manner of interesting questions and causes and cases, and many folks would argue that the courts can be politics by other means,” Sasser said. “I think that’s something we see in cases that are currently before the court and have been before it in the past, and so I think anybody who’s interested in the trajectory of where we’re headed should be paying attention to the courts.”
Elise Orlick ’15, president of the William and Mary Young Democrats, said that the group brought in associate professor Christine Nemacheck for the last two years for a similar discussion, and that she thought there would be high interest again this year.
“We really enjoy having professors that we know students are big fans of, whose opinions we really respect, but that are also pretty entertaining lecturers,” Orlick said. “We decided to bring in professor Sasser as a new voice for this year since a lot of these cases were coming up on the end of the Supreme Court term.”
Sasser received a variety of student questions, ranging from which form of death penalty he thought inflicts the least mental and physical pain, to questions on solitary confinement and the future of same-sex marriage.
Jacob Nelson ’18 steered the conversation away from death.
“Can I ask something not death related?” Nelson asked. “So this is about fish. Can you talk about Yates v. U.S. and how the Court constituted a tangible object?”
According to Sasser, Yates, a fisherman, caught red groupers that were too small for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission guidelines. The case exemplified one of the court’s main purposes — to define discreet words in the context of the facts. Sasser said that this practice has larger implications in other contexts, such as the definition of a state — currently an important international debate.
A student asked Sasser if he expected the Supreme Court to let the same-sex marriage decision be made at the state level, or if it will make an overarching determination. Sasser said that the session on April 28 will result in a decision one way or the other because of the four cases being heard.
“I think it’s unlikely that they would affirm [Judge] Sutton’s support for these four state prohibitions on same-sex marriage — these four states say that marriage is a man and woman and the sixth circuit says, ‘Yeah, you can say that,’” he said. “The other circuits that the Court could have granted a case from have resolved the question differently.”
In response to a follow-up question, Sasser said that he did not think this decision would mean a great change for cases regarding transgender rights.