Obama’s Death Penalty Review Risks Backlash From the States

The generations-old debate over capital punishment has shifted to Washington, where President Obama’s Justice Department has launched a national review of the death penalty.

Attorney Gen. Eric Holder’s inquiry, initiated last month following a mishandled execution in Oklahoma, is still in its early stages. The effort includes a look at state death penalty protocols, though its scope and ultimate implications are not yet clear.

But by ordering up the review, Obama is raising questions about what role, if any, the federal government should have on an issue that is traditionally the province of the states.

Some congressional Republicans are warning the administration to tread lightly.

“I think the president’s got enough to do … without sticking his finger into state government,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “They better stick to the things that, under the Constitution, are his responsibility.”

Obama, a supporter of the death penalty in rare cases, has been relatively quiet on the subject throughout his presidency. On his watch, however, the Justice Department has in recent years imposed a moratorium on federal executions, while the agency studies policies employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.