SCOTUS strikes down IQ test as sole factor in capital punishment cases

May 29, 2014

legal injection chair executionEarlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida, a landmark capital punishment case.  The case specifically dealt with death penalties imposed on the intellectually disabled, with the previous ruling on this matter, Atkins v. Virginia, having been decided 12 years ago.

Atkins held that executing mentally intellectually disabled individuals violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  However, the Court left it up to the states to decide exactly what constituted “intellectually disabled” (or, as it was referred to back in 2002, “mentally retarded”).

Hall changed that latter point to a certain extent.  In that ruling, the Court invalidated a Florida statute that deemed anyone with an IQ score of more than 70 as not being intellectually disabled and thus eligible for capital punishment.  The defendant in the case, Freddie Hall, had scored a 71.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, found that basing eligibility for capital punishment solely on IQ test scores, as Florida does, is something of a rarity among the states.

The majority opinion specifically concluded that “every state legislature to have considered the issue after Atkins – save Virginia’s – and whose law has been interpreted by its courts has taken a position contrary to that of Florida.”

Why is it relevant what other states are doing?  Because under Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, the Court looks to a national consensus to determine whether a sentence is “cruel and unusual” under the Constitution.

The majority also looked to medical evidence and opinions in deciding that IQ test scores alone are unreliable indicators of whether an individual is intellectually disabled.

However, according to the dissent, which was written by Justice Alito and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas, the majority “strikes down a state law based on the evolving standards of professional societies, most notably the American Psychiatric Association.”  In other words, the dissent argued that the majority was looking to mental health professionals for guidance on the definition of “intellectually disabled” when it should be looking to state legislatures.

Hall is notable for several reasons.  First, as mentioned above, it marked the first time that the Court directed the states how they may not define “intellectually disabled,” in spite of Atkins explicitly giving the states that freedom.  Granted, the ruling does not disqualify the states’ use of IQ test scores as a factor in determining whether an individual had sufficient intellectual functioning to qualify as “intellectually disabled;” but it does explicitly forbid the states from basing that determination on IQ scores alone.

Outside of the context of Eighth Amendment law, Hall remains a noteworthy case in that it highlights the ideological shift of the Court at large along with providing better insight into the views of some individual justices.

Atkins was decided before four of the current justices were members of the Court.  While Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor and Kagan each voted in the same camp as their respective predecessors, Justice Alito, who replaced Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, voted differently.  This should come as no surprise, though, given that Alito is solidly conservative where O’Connor was quite the moderate.  And this likely won’t be the last time that Alito votes differently than O’Connor would have.

Finally, Hall gives us some deeper insight into Justice Kennedy’s views.  Although he joined the majority opinion in Atkins, he actually wrote the majority opinion in this case, which arguably goes further than Atkins.

Furthermore, when taken together with other recent Eighth Amendment cases in which Justice Kennedy joined the majority, such as 2012’s Miller v. Alabama in which the Court held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional, it appears that Justice Kennedy is firmly in the camp for expanding the definition of “cruel and unusual punishment”

We’ll almost certainly see additional landmark cases this term that provide insight into Kennedy’s and other justices viewpoints, but either way, we have one already with Hall.