Upholding the Law and the Constitution

This blog was originally published on February 26, 2014, on teh American Constitution Society blog.

More than a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) that the eighth amendment categorically forbids people with intellectual disabilities from being sentenced to death and executed. States were charged with the appropriate role of setting procedures to enforce and give effect to this Constitutional protection.

On March 3, 2014, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Hall v. Florida.

The question presented is narrow:

Whether Florida’s statutory scheme for identifying defendants with “mental retardation,” as interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against executing people with intellectual disabilities as articulated in Atkins?

As a note of reference “intellectual disabilities,” adopted since the Court ruled in Atkins, is the preferred clinical term over “mental retardation.”

At stake is whether Florida is obliged to honor the limits imposed by the eighth amendment and refrain from executing a man who falls within the class of people for whom the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. This inquiry goes to the heart of the deal struck in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976). In Gregg the Supreme Court held that the death penalty could be administered in a manner consistent with the Constitution. The Court’s ruling was premised on the reasonable expectation that states will work within the framework created by the Court as the final arbiter of constitutional standards for the practice. This premise cannot hold, however, if states continuously seek to circumvent these standards by erecting barriers to the recognition of constitutional rights.

Mr. Hall has an IQ range of 65- 75. He has since childhood demonstrated significant limitations in adaptive behavior. He was slow learning to walk and to talk. Elementary school teachers repeatedly classified him as “mentally retarded” and in need of special instruction. Clinical experts describe him as an illiterate adult whose mathematical abilities are virtually non-existent. His speech is described as incomprehensible and his use and understanding of language is said to be no better than that of a nine year old. Further, experts observe that “he is unable to reason abstractly … or to project consequences and [he is] easily influenced.”

Florida takes the position that it can define, carve out and exclude some people with intellectual disabilities from the protection of the Constitution. It argues further that, for the purpose of determining who may be punished with death, it can ignore normal standards for evaluating IQ tests and accepted clinical practice. Yet in other contexts, for example determining who is eligible for special services, the state exercises the good judgment to adhere to the dictates of science and clinical practice.

Florida is defending a death penalty statute that has been interpreted to define intellectual disability solely by reference to an IQ score that is arbitrarily capped at 70. The Florida Supreme Court has interpreted the Florida statute to preclude consideration of standard error measurements and functional limitations in adaptive behavior if a defendant’s IQ is as much as one point above the cap. Both considerations are essential to an accurate diagnosis of intellectual disability.

Absurdly, if Mr. Hall were applying for vocational training, medical care or job placement on the basis of his intellectual disability he would be eligible for assistance. This is more than irony or a disturbing incongruity in the law. It lays bare Florida’s insistence on following its own prerogatives. Florida’s position is essentially that the legal authority to use capital punishment also gives it license to evade Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution. The Court has said quite clearly that Mr. Hall’s intellectual disabilities render him categorically ineligible to be punished with death. Yet Florida insists defiantly that he can be executed.

If Florida can execute Mr. Hall, then it seems that we are back to square one. If the premise of Gregg is correct, the Supreme Court must set constitutional standards. States must be bound by them and those standards must be enforced.

At the end of the day, the Court does have a very narrow and simple question before it. Its answer should be equally simple but quite firm.

It should all boil down to this: What part of no does the State of Florida not understand?

Source: National Coalition to End the Death Penalty