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Right to Life and Capital Punishment in Transnational Judicial Dialogue

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 December 2021

Jimmy Chia-Shin Hsu*
Institutum Iurisprudentiae, Academia Sinica
Corresponding author. E-mail:
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In this article, I bring the constitutional jurisprudence of major East Asian courts into reconstructive dialogue with that of the United States, South Africa, and several former Soviet-bloc countries, on per se review of capital punishment. This fills in a gap in the literature, which has failed to reflect new developments in Asia. Besides analysing various review approaches, I extrapolate recurrent analytical issues and reconstruct dialogues among these court decisions. Moreover, I place the analysis in historical perspective by periodising the jurisprudential trajectory of the right to life. The contextualised reconstructive dialogues offer multilayered understanding of my central analytical argument: for any court that may conduct per se review of capital punishment in the future, the highly influential South African Makwanyane case does not settle the lesson. The transnational debate has been kept open by the Korean Constitutional Court's decisions, as well as retrospectively by the US cases of Furman and Gregg. This argument has two major points. First, the crucial part of the reasoning in Makwanyane, namely that capital punishment cannot be proven to pass the necessity test under the proportionality review, is analytically inconclusive. The Korean Constitutional Court's decision offers a direct contrast to this point. Second, the exercise of proportionality review of the Makwanyane Court does not attest to the neutrality and objectivity of proportionality review. Rather, what is really dispositive of the outcome are certain value choices inhering in per se review of capital punishment.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the National University of Singapore

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Associate Research Professor, Institutum Iurisprudentiae, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. I am grateful for Richard Albert, Wenchen Chang, Bruce Yuan-Hao Liao, Che-Wei Liang, and Hsiu-Yu Fan for their insightful comments on this paper. I also thank participants at the faculty workshops of Institutum Iurisprudentiae, Academia Sinica and National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University Law School, and those at the conference panel of the 8th Asian Constitutional Law Forum at Hanoi, Vietnam, for helpful comments. A very early draft of this paper was presented at Harvard Yenching Institute and the Rutgers Law School faculty workshop in 2017. I thank Michael Rosen and Mark Tushnet for sharing their precious thoughts on the rudimentary draft, and I thank the participants at these workshops for valuable feedback. My heartfelt thanks especially go to former Justice of Taiwan Constitutional Court, Dr Yu-Hsiu Hsu. In 2015, upon her invitation and under her guidance, I sat on the bench of the Constitutional Court Simulation, sponsored by the Taipei Bar Association. It is through the event that my ideas about this article first germinated. The research is funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan [107-2410-H-001-058-MY2].


1 Roger Hood & Carolyn Hoyle, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective (5th edn, Oxford University Press 2015) 16.

2 ibid 22–24.

3 Alkotmánybíróság (AB)(Constitutional Court) Oct 31, 1990, Decision 23. I rely on the official English translation of the Court's decisions, which does not contain corresponding pages in the Hungarian Gazette. I use the page numbers of the English translation rather than the gazette number.

4 The State v T Makwanyane and M Mchunu [1995] 3 SA 391 (CC) (South Africa).

5 The Constitutional Court of Lithuania, Case No 2/98, 9 Dec 1998.

6 The Constitutional Court of Urkaine, Case No 1-33/99, 11-rp/99, 29 Dec 1999; The Constitutional Court of Albania, Decision No 65, Tirana, 10 Dec 1999.

7 Russia (Constitutional Court) [VKS RF][Postanovleniye Konstitutsionnogo Suda RF (1999) No 3-P ot 2 fevrale] [Decree of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation No 3 of Feb 2]1999, No 3, 12–24. Russia (Constitutional Court). [Opredeleniye Konstitutsionnogo Suda Rossiyskoy Federatsii ot 19 noyabrya 2009 No 1344-O-P] [Ruling of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation of Nov 19, 2009, No 1344-O-P] 2009.

8 Furman v Georgia 408 US 238 (1972) (hereinafter ‘Furman’).

9 Gregg v Georgia 428 US 153 (1976) (hereinafter ‘Gregg’).

10 American Law Institute, ‘Report of the Council to the Membership of The American Law Institute’ (15 Apr 2009).

11 Death Penalty Information Center, ‘Death Penalty in 2019: Year End Report’ <> accessed 20 Feb 2020.

12 Carol S Steiker & Jordan M Steiker, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment (Harvard University Press 2016) 1–5.

13 For example, see Barry, Kevin M, ‘The Death Penalty & the Dignity Clauses’ (2017) 102 Iowa Law Review 383Google Scholar, 421–422; Malkani, Bharat, ‘Dignity and the Death Penalty in the United States Supreme Court’ (2017) 44 Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 145Google Scholar, 149–153.

14 See infra text accompanying nn 51–67.

15 Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab, AIR 1980 SC 898 (delivered on 9 May 1980). See Anup Surendranath, ‘Life and Personal Liberty’, in Sujit Choudhry et al (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (Oxford University Press 2016) 763–764.

16 See infra text accompanying nn 138–155.

17 See infra text accompanying nn 135–137.

18 Indonesian Constitutional Court Decision Number 2-3/PUU-V/2007.

19 Carozza, Paolo G, ‘“My Friend Is a Stranger”: The Death Penalty and the Global Ius Commune of Human Rights’ (2003) 81 Texas Law Review 1031Google Scholar, 1036–1042.

20 William A Schabas, The Death Penalty as Cruel punishment and Torture: Capital Punishment Challenged in the World's Courts (Northeastern University Press 1996).

21 Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law (Penguin Books 2010) 10.

22 Jurow, Keith, ‘Untimely Thoughts: A Reconsideration of the Origins of Due Process of Law’ (1975) 19 American Journal of Legal History 265CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 266.

23 Bingham (n 21) 15.

24 For example, Elizabeth Wicks, The Right to Life and Conflicting Interests (Oxford University Press 2010) 35–46; Thomas Desch, ‘The Concept and Dimensions of the Right to Life’ (1985) 36 Österreichische Zeitschrift für Öffentliches Recht und Völkerrecht 77, 78–79; Micheline R Ishay, The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (University of California Press 2004) 84–91.

25 Ramraj, Victor V, ‘Four Models of Due Process’ (2004) 2 International Journal of Constitutional Law 492CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 496–497.

26 ibid 497–500.

27 Ong Ah Chuan v Public Prosecutor [1981] AC 648 (hereinafter ‘Ong Ah Chuan’). For in-depth discussion, see David Pannick, Judicial Review of the Death Penalty (Duckbacks 1983).

28 The jurisdiction of the Privy Council over Singapore was completely abolished in 1994, to be superseded by the Court of Appeal of the Republic of Singapore.

29 Ong Ah Chuan (n 27) 672.

30 Desch (n 24) 104.

31 Schabas (n 20) 9.

32 European Court of Human Rights, art 2(1): ‘Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law’.

33 American Convention on Human Rights, art 4(1): ‘Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life’.

34 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 Dec 1966, entered into force 23 Mar 1976), art 6(1): ‘Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life’.

35 James Q Whitman, ‘On Nazi “Honour” and the New European “Dignity”’, in Christian Joerges & Navraj Singh Ghaleigh (ed), Darker Legacies of Law in Europe (Hart Publishing 2003) 243, 244.

36 ECHR, art 2(1).

37 ACHR, art 4(2).

38 ICCPR, arts 6(2)–(6).

39 Schabas (n 20) 8–9.

40 Roe v Wade, 410 US 113 (1973).

41 Prudence Flowers, The Right-to-life Movement, The Reagan Administration, and the Politics of Abortion (Palgrave 2019) 16.

42 Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, A Consistent Ethics of Life (Sheed & Ward 1988).

43 Nicole Winfield, ‘Pope Francis Rules Out Death Penalty in Change to Church Teaching’ Chicago Tribune (2 Aug 2018) <> accessed 17 Mar 2020. For an introduction to the Catholic Church's teaching on capital punishment before Pope Francis's turn, see Edward Feser & Joseph M Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (Ignatius Press 2017) 111–211.

44 1993 Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, art 32: ‘Everybody shall have the rights to life, freedom, and personal security. Capital punishment is prohibited.’ The Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, s 19(1): ‘Excessive fines shall not be imposed, nor cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment inflicted. Neither shall death penalty be imposed, unless, for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, the Congress hereafter provides for it’.

45 1949 Constitution of Hungary, art 54(1): ‘In the Republic of Hungary everyone has the inherent right to life and to human dignity. No one shall be arbitrarily denied of these rights’.

46 1993 Interim Constitution of South Africa, art 9: ‘Every person shall have the right to life’.

47 Robert C Post, ‘Fashioning the Legal Constitution: Culture, Courts, and Law’ (2003) 117 Harvard Law Review 4, 8.

48 See David Johnson & Franklin Zimring, The Next Frontier: National Development, Political change, and the Death Penalty in Asia (Oxford University Press 2009); Jimmy Chia-Shin Hsu, ‘Right to Life’, in David Law, Holning Lau & Alex Schwartz (eds), Oxford Handbook of Constitutional Law in Asia (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Available at SSRN: <> accessed 20 May 2021.

49 Schabas (n 20) 6.

50 The most recent government poll announced in January 2020 shows 80.8% of the public in support of Japan's capital punishment system and only 9% against it. Takakazu Murakami, ‘Over 80% Accept Death Penalty in Japan as “Inevitable”: Government Poll’ The Mainichi (18 Jan 2020) < > accessed 21 Feb 2020. For a critical assessment of the apparently consistent and robust public support for retention in Japan, see Mai Sato, The Death Penalty in Japan: Will the Public Tolerate Abolition (Springer 2014).

51 Justin McCurry, ‘Calls to Abolish Death Penalty Grow Louder in Japan’ The Guardian (21 Sep 2016) <> accessed 20 Aug 2021.

52 Petra Schmidt, Capital Punishment in Japan (Brill 2002) 10–11.

53 ibid 88–90.

54 最高裁判所昭和 23 年 3 月 12 日大法庭判決 (刑事判例集 2 卷 3 号191頁) [Judgment of the Grand Bench of the Supreme Court on 12 Mar 1948 (Keiji Hanreishu, vol 2, no 3, 191)]. I use the translation of the judgment collected in John M Maki, Court and Constitution in Japan: Selected Supreme Court Decisions 1948–60 (University of Washington Press 1964) 156–164.

55 Maki (n 54) 156.

56 ibid 157.

57 1947 Constitution of Japan, art 13.

58 ibid 158.

59 ibid.

60 ibid 159. The primary method of execution, namely hanging, was later challenged but upheld by the Court. See 最高裁判所昭和 36 年7月19日大法庭判決(刑事判例集 15 卷 7号1106 頁)[Judgment of the Grand Bench of the Supreme Court on 19 Jul 1961 (Keiji Hanreishu, vol 15, no 7, 1106)].

61 Maki (n 54) 159.

62 ibid 161.

63 ibid.

64 ibid.

65 ibid 164.

66 最高裁判所昭和 24 年 8月18日大法庭判決(刑事判例集 3 卷 9号1478頁)[Judgment of the Grand Bench of the Supreme Court on 18 Aug 1949 (Keiji Hanreishu, vol 3, no 9, 1478)].

67 Matthew H Kramer, The Ethics of Capital Punishment: A Philosophical Investigation of Evil and Its Consequences (Oxford University Press 2011) 179–266.

68 This contrast of approaches, namely the positive approach versus the normative approach, is inspired by Margaret Radin's seminal article. Radin, Margaret Jane, ‘The Jurisprudence of Death: Evolving Standards for the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause’ (1978) 126 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 989CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 1034.

69 Matsui, Shigenori, ‘Why is the Japanese Supreme Court so Conservative?’ (2011) 88 Washington University Law Review 1375Google Scholar; Law, David S, ‘Why Has Judicial Review Failed in Japan?’ (2011) 88 Washington University Law Review 1425Google Scholar, 1426.

70 217 US 349 (1910).

71 ibid 378.

72 356 US 86 (1958).

73 ibid 101.

74 Furman (n 8) 325. Note, however, that this reading is forcefully contested by Chief Justice Warren Burger, see Furman (n 8) 376–379.

75 Trop v Dulles 356 US 86, 100 (1958).

76 Furman (n 8) 280.

77 ibid 392–395.

78 ibid 343.

79 Gregg (n 9) 174.

80 ibid.

81 ibid 175.

82 ibid.

83 ibid 173.

84 ibid 175.

85 ibid 183.

86 433 US 584 (1977).

87 ibid 592.

88 ibid.

89 ibid 597.

90 Matthew Matusiak et al, ‘The Progression of ‘Evolving Standards of Decency’ in U.S. Supreme Court Decisions’ (2014) 39 Criminal Justice Review 253, 256–257.

91 Steiker & Steiker (n 12) 275.

92 State v Makwanyane (CCT3/94) [1995] (hereinafter ‘Makwanyane’).

93 ibid para 100.

94 ibid para 22.

95 ibid para. 88.

96 ibid.

97 Max du Plessis, ‘Between Apology and Utopia-The Constitutional Court and Public Opinion’ (2002) 18 South African Journal of Human Rights 1, 5–6.

98 Makwanyane (n 92) para 88.

99 Theunis Roux, The Politics of Principle: The First South African Constitutional Court 1995–2005 (Cambridge University Press 2013) 243.

100 ibid 246.

101 Makwanyane (n 92) paras 40–56.

102 ibid para 39.

103 ibid paras 57–62.

104 ibid para 105.

105 ibid para 97.

106 ibid paras 102, 106.

107 For in-depth discussion of proportionality in the US in comparison with that used in courts of other jurisdictions, see Vicki Jackson, ‘Constitutional Law in an Age of Proportionality’ (2015) 124 Yale Law Journal 3094.

108 Makwanyane (n 92) paras 129, 130.

109 ibid para 130.

110 ibid para. 130.

111 ibid para 131.

112 Makwanyane (n 92) para 127. Note that this attorney general who defends the statute in question is not an official of the national government, since the ruling African National Congress supported abolition. He was the attorney general of Witwatersrand, an independent official: Roux (n 99) 240.

113 Makwanyane (n 92) para 127.

114 ibid.

115 Furman (n 8) 395.

116 Gregg (n 9) 186.

117 See Isaac Ehrlich, ‘The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: a Question of Life and Death’ (1975) 65 American Economic Review 397, 397–417; Isaac Ehrlich, ‘Capital Punishment and Deterrence: Some further Thoughts and Additional Evidence’ (1977) 85 Journal of Political Economy 741, 741–788; Isaac Ehrlich & Joel Gibbons, ‘On the Measurement of the Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment and the Theory of Deterrence’ (1977) 6 Journal of Legal Studies 35, 35–50.

118 Aaron Chalfin & Justin McCrary, ‘Criminal Deterrence: A Review of the Literature’ (2017) 55 Journal of Economic Literature 5, 28–29.

119 In fact, in addition to the already controversial status of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP), arguments have been made to challenge long-term incarceration in general. See Jacob Bronsther, ‘Long-term Incarceration and the Moral Limits of Punishment’ (2020) 41 Cardozo Law Review 2369.

120 Radin (n 68) 1014.

121 ibid 1015.

122 ibid 1017–1030.

123 Matthew D Mathias, ‘The Sacralization of the Individual: Human Rights and the Abolition of the Death Penalty’ (2013) 118 American Journal of Sociology 1246, 1255–1257.

124 Agata Fijalkowski, ‘Abolition of the Death Penalty in Central and Eastern Europe’ (2001) 9 Tilburg Foreign Law Review 62.

125 Alkotmánybíróság (AB)[1990] (Constitutional Court) 31 October, Decision 23. The decisions of the Hungarian Constitutional Court in English are available from the website of the Court. The Constitutional Court of Hungary, ‘Decision 23 (1990)’ <> accessed 5 Mar 2020. The PDF document is neither paginated nor paragraphed. Hereinafter I reference the decision in accord with the page number indicated in the PDF page indicator.

126 ibid 10.

127 ibid 10.

128 ibid.

129 ibid 11.

130 ibid 13 (Justice Lábady and Justice Tersztyánszky concurring).

131 The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania, Case No 2/98, Vilnius, 9 Dec 1998, s 4.

132 ALB-1999-3-008, Decision No 65, 10 Dec 1999.

133 ibid.

134 ‘Decision 23 (1990)’ (n 125) 13, 32.

135 ibid 32.

136 ibid.

137 Makwanyane (n 92) para 136.

138 ibid para 138.

139 ibid para 83.

140 ibid paras 138–140.

141 JY Interpretation No 476. English translation of the Court's Interpretations are available on the Court's website: Constitutional Court, Judicial Yuan of the ROC, ‘Interpretations’ <> accessed 21 Feb 2020.

142 ibid para 4 (‘Reasoning’).

143 ibid para 2.

144 22-1(A) KCCR 36, 2008 Hun-Ka 23, February 25, 2010 (hereinafter ‘KCC 2008 Hun-Ka 23’). The official English translation of decisions of the Constitutional Court of Korea can be downloaded from the Court's website <> accessed 7 Sep 2021. Citations in the following are based on the pagination of the downloaded official English translation in pdf form.

145 Kuk Cho, ‘Death Penalty in Korea: From Unofficial Moratorium to Abolition?’ (2008) 3 Asian Journal of Comparative Law 1, 18–20.

146 See eg, Eric Neumayer, ‘Death Penalty: The Political Foundations of the Global Trend Towards Abolition’ (2008) 9 Human Rights Review 241.

147 David Johnson & Franklin Zimring, The Next Frontier: National Development, Political change, and the Death Penalty in Asia (Oxford University Press 2009) 174–188.

148 Amnesty International, ‘Death Sentences and Executions Report (2015)’ <> accessed 14 May 2016.

149 Cho (n 145) 2.

150 Byung-Sun Cho, ‘South Korea's Changing Capital Punishment Policy: The Road from de facto to Formal Abolition’ (2008) 10 Punishment and Society 171, 191.

151 Cho (n 145) 26.

152 KCC 2008 Hun-Ka 23, 18.

153 ibid 19.

154 ibid 23.

155 ibid 24.

156 ibid.

157 ibid.

158 In this decision, ‘just retribution’ appears twice. KCC 2008 Hun-Ka 23, 23, 25.

159 For classic elaboration of retributive justice, see Immanuel Kant, ‘The Metaphysics of Morals’, in Mary J Gregor (ed), The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy (first published 1797, Cambridge University Press 1996) 472–477; GHW Hegel, Hegel's Philosophy of Right (Thomas Knox tr, first published 1821, Oxford University Press 1942) 246. See generally Michael S Moore, Placing Blame: A Theory of the Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 1997).

160 For the conceptual difference between retribution and revenge, see Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Harvard University Press 1981) 366–368; Markel, Dan, ‘State, Be Not Proud: A Retributivist Defense of the Commutation of Death Row and the Abolition of the Death Penalty’ (2005) 40 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 407Google Scholar, 438.

161 KCC 2008 Hun-Ka 23, 23.

162 ibid 24–25.

163 ibid 28.

164 ibid 27–28.

165 Maki (n 54) 158.

166 Makwanyane (n 92) paras 57–59.

167 Makwanyane (n 92) paras 57–59, citing 45 BVerfGE 187, 1977.

168 Kant (n 159) 473.

169 ibid 473–474.

170 Makwanyane (n 92) para 60.

171 David M Beatty, The Ultimate Rule of Law (Oxford University Press 2004) 166–171.

172 David M Beatty, ‘In Praise of Casuistry: Making Hard Cases Easier’, in Vicki Jackson & Mark Tushnet (eds), Proportionality: New Frontiers, New Challenges (Cambridge University Press 2017) 274–275.

173 Mathias (n 123) 1257.

174 Hans Joas, The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights (Georgetown University Press 2013).

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