A State-Federal Standoff Over the Death Penalty
A principled governor invoking “state’s rights” to defy federal policy. Aggressive local officials overriding state decisions. A federal court angrily affirming its own power. An anguished dissent attacking a power-hungry Congress.
United States v. Pleau has all the elements of a great federalism battle (including, by the way, largely symbolic stakes). But don’t expect to see Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s “state’s rights” stand hailed by Republican conservatives: Chafee is blocking the federal government in order to show his disapproval of the federal death penalty. The result, decided May 7 by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, is now in the Supreme Court’s in-basket. Pleau deals with important issues of policy, morality, and history. But because this is the United States, the language of the dispute is that of federalism—a pastime that Professors Edward L. Rubin and Malcolm Feeley once dubbed “a national neurosis.”
The case began on September 20, 2010, when Jason Wayne Pleau, along with two companions, staked out a convenience store in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. They shadowed the manager, David D. Main, as he carried a bag of cash receipts to a branch of Citizens Bank. Outside the bank, Pleau confronted Main with a pistol. When the manager tried to sprint to safety, Pleau killed him.
The three were arrested soon after; Pleau was sent back to Rhode Island to begin serving time for parole violation. The other two were brought into federal court on charges of violating the Hobbs Act, which punishes robbery or extortion that “obstructs, delays, or affects commerce.” Jose Anibal Santiago pleaded not guilty; Kelley Marie Lajoie cut a plea deal with federal prosecutors.