Today in 2002: SCOTUS rules capital punishment for the intellectually disabled unconstitutional

June 20, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryAt the end of last month, the Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida, a landmark ruling on capital punishment.

The ruling specifically held that states may not base determinations on whether a defendant is intellectually disabled (previously known as “mentally retarded”), and thus eligible for capital punishment, solely on IQ test scores.  Since there is an error rate that could potentially cause inaccurate assessments of intellectual ability, such test scores alone are not necessarily an accurate indicator.

Florida’s statute setting IQ test scores as a benchmark for capital punishment failed to factor in this error rate, and was consequently struck down in the ruling as unconstitutional (you can read more about Hall in these two posts).

Hall, of course, is based on the assumption that the Constitution forbids capital punishment for intellectually disabled individuals.  And according to an earlier Supreme Court ruling celebrating its twelfth birthday today, Atkins v. Virginia, the Constitution indeed imposes that prohibition.

Atkins held that the imposition of the death penalty on the intellectually disabled constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, overruling Penry v. Lynaugh, which, although decided only 13 years prior, had reached the opposite result as Atkins.

What changed between Penry and Atkins to cause the Supreme Court to completely reverse course on the question?

Both cases involved an intellectually disabled man convicted of murder and both were sentenced to death.  It wasn’t a divergence in the facts of the cases that caused the opposite results of Penry and Atkins, however; it was a change in the legal landscape in the 13 year interim.

The Atkins majority opinion expressly explained this point by noting that “a significant number of States have concluded that death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal.”  The majority, written by Justice Stevens and joined by Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, further observed the significance in “the consistency of the direction of change” in that, despite anticrime legislation being “far more popular than legislation protecting violent criminals,” a large number of states “prohibit[] the execution of mentally retarded persons” – and no state has introduced legislation reinstating such executions.

Here’s where Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is a bit different than other constitutional law: the definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment “draw[s] its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”  Thus, the Supreme Court looks to the states and their laws for guidance on what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”

And that’s exactly what they did in Atkins: because it was clear to the majority that the states were moving in the direction of completely abolishing capital punishment for the intellectually disabled, the Court found that, under the “evolving standards of decency,” the Eighth Amendment now forbids imposing the death sentence on the intellectually disabled.

The Court declined to define “intellectually disabled,” instead leaving it to the states to decide.  However, last month’s Hall ruling seemingly stripped away some of that power: while reaffirming Atkins, Hall forbade states from defining “intellectually disabled” in a particular way.

Of course, the irony is that both Atkins and Hall have had the effect of forcing those states who weren’t in compliance with the Court’s rulings to change theirs, thereby accelerating the “evolution” of these “standards of decency.”

Thus, it seems almost certain that, when the Supreme Court next considers this issue, Atkins will be affirmed and expanded even further.