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Federal Death Penalty at thr Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court is the court of last resort for death row inmates around the country. The vast majority of death row inmates are convicted and sentenced under state death penalty laws, and so most of the capital appeals that the court reviews concern state statutes. The federal death penalty is given in a small number of cases and carried out in even fewer. As a result, the history of the court’s interaction with federal capital appeals is brief, although the Department of Justice has recently announced its intention to resume federal executions, prompting challenges that are currently pending. (For a detailed primer on the role of the Supreme Court in capital cases, see here.)

In 1972, the court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that all death penalty laws, both federal and state, were unconstitutional because of the penalty’s arbitrary and discriminatory administration. States were quick to pass new death penalty laws to address the concerns; the court upheld some of those statutes four years later in Gregg v. Georgia. Congress did not reinstate the federal death penalty until 1988, however, and then only for some drug-related crimes. A full-fledged reinstatement arrived with the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which dramatically expanded the list of federal crimes eligible for the death penalty and outlined procedures for administering it.

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