Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Troy Davis, Victim of Judicial Violence

“I want to suggest that the court’s speech carries with it its own violence, and that the very institution that is invested with the authority to adjudicate the problem of hate speech recirculates and redirects that hatred in and as its own highly consequential speech, often by co-opting the very language that it seeks to adjudicate.” – Butler, p. 233.

“The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the Court is denied.” – Supreme Court order denying Troy Davis a stay of execution, resulting in his death within the hour.

What the Supreme Court (and before them, the Georgia courts) did this past week was a tragic, shocking example of court-sanctioned violence. With one simple sentence, the Supreme Court condemned a man to death, ignoring mountains of evidence that suggested his possible innocence.

In the Troy Davis case, the Supreme Court’s one-line refusal to stay the execution reenforces Butler’s assertion that the judicial system has its own brand of hate speech, in this particular instance, denying a motion which directly results in someone’s death. The stay of execution is silent on matters of racial justice, on legal principles such as reasonable doubt, and on the judicial system’s history of perpetuating racism and inequality. This silence is criminal. Similarly to the way the Court reacted to the cross burning case Butler discusses, this one-line refusal strips Troy Davis of his civil rights in refusing to acknowledge that he is constitutionally entitled to a fair trial.

“Here it is clear that what is needed is not a better understanding of speech acts or the injurious power of speech,” Butler says, “but the strategic and contradictory uses to which the Court puts these various formulations” (p. 229). How do we make sense of the Supreme Court’s willingness to perpetuate the denial of justice, especially given that their function as a legal body is to make sure that all citizens’ rights are protected?

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