Tuesday, May 27, 2014
The Supreme Court today ruled in Hall v. Florida that a state's use of a rigid cut-off to determine intellectual disability for the purpose of administering the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Our oral argument preview is here.
The 5-4 ruling, penned by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, is another in a series of blows against the death the penalty. Justice Alito wrote the dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas.
The case tested Florida's use of a rigid cut-off to determine intellectual capacity for the purpose of administering the death penalty. The Court previously ruled in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that the Eighth Amendment bars the use of the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities. Florida defined intellectual disability with reference to an IQ score of 70 or less. That meant that a defendant with an IQ score above 70 (including the defendant in this case) couldn't introduce further evidence of intellectual disability.
The Court held that this violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It said that Florida's statute could be read to comply with the standard medical definition of intellectual disability (by including consideration of the standard error of measurement in the IQ test), but that the state instead applied it in a rigid way, foreclosing additional evidence of intellectual disability when a defendant has an IQ test above 70. That, the Court said, "disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways": it takes the IQ score as "final and conclusive evidence of a defendant's intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence"; and it disregards the standard error of measurement in an IQ test. (The standard error of measurement, or SEM, reflects the inherent imprecision in the IQ test and the resulting possible variation in results. It means that an IQ test score really reflects a range of results, not a single number.)
The Court said that a "significant majority of States implement the protection of Atkins by taking the SEM into account." "The rejection of the strict 70 cutoff in the vast majority of States and the 'consistency in the trend' toward recognizing the SEM provide strong evidence of consensus that our society does not regard this strict cutoff as proper or humane."
The ruling is just the latest blow to the death penalty. It means that states can't use a rigid IQ cutoff to determine intellectual disability under Atkins; instead, they have to consider the SEM and other evidence of intellectual disability, consistent with the standard medical approach of measuring intellectual disability.