Today's New York Times publishes the editorial, "Florida’s Unconstitutional Death Penalty."
Justice Elena Kagan asked why Florida refuses to consider the margin of error, even though state officials don’t dispute that it is part of any test-score interpretation. The lawyer for the state responded that using accepted scientific practice “would double the number of people who are eligible” to be exempt from execution. “And that’s inconsistent with Florida’s purposes,” he said.
Florida’s purpose, in other words, is not to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling, but to execute its death-row inmates whether or not they are intellectually disabled. The court rejected that practice once. It should do so again, unequivocally, for those states that missed the message the first time.
Adam Liptak reports, "Justices Hear Florida Case on Measuring Inmates’ Mental Disabilities," for the Times' news coverage.
A majority of the Supreme Court seemed skeptical on Monday of how Florida decides who is eligible to be spared the death penalty on account of intellectual disabilities. The state uses an I.Q. of 70 as a rigid cutoff, and several justices suggested that it should take account of a standard margin of error or consider additional factors.
Other justices seemed inclined to allow Florida and other states to decide for themselves how to determine who is “mentally retarded” and so ineligible for execution under the court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia.
The Atkins decision gave states substantial discretion and only general guidance. It said a finding of intellectual disability requires proof of three things: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” meaning low I.Q. scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said I.Q. scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate intellectual disability.
SCOTUSblog posts, "Argument analysis: When simplicity won’t do," by Lyle Denniston.
If a state, trying to make it simple to decide who can be given a death sentence, opts for a choice that looks arbitrary, it is likely to have a difficult time in a Supreme Court that worries about the chances of error. That was demonstrated anew on Monday, when Florida found itself in deep Eighth Amendment trouble with a rule that anyone with an IQ above 70 can be executed if convicted of murder.
A quite definite majority of the Justices — perhaps, notably, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — left little doubt that Florida and six other states will not be allowed to maintain an automatic test-score-based cutoff for those who could qualify as mentally retarded and thus can escape the death penalty.
Kennedy’s role is central because he has most often led the Court in narrowing the category of those eligible to be executed, to take account of reduced capacity to be held responsible for their criminal behavior. He was among the most active in questioning Florida’s approach to mental retardation among those on death row. And, on Monday, he added in some strongly implied criticism of a system that allows some inmates to remain on death row for decades — an issue that is not directly involved in the new case of Hall v. Florida.
Additional coverage includes:
"High Court Questions Florida's Mental Test in Death Cases," by Marcia Coyle for National Law Journal.
The update AP report by Mark Sherman, "Court skeptical of IQ scores in deciding execution," is via the Miami Herald.
"Supreme Court justices question strict IQ standard for Florida’s death row," by Robert Barnes at the Washington Post.
"Justices Challenge Florida's IQ Rule for Executions," by Jess Bravin for the Wall Street Journal.
"Justices divided over death penalty and intellectual disability," by Bill Mears at CNN.
"Justices lean toward defendant in mental disability case," by Richard Wolf of USA Today.
"Supreme Court scrutinizes Florida’s death penalty law," by Michael Doyle for the McClatchy Washington Bureau.
"High Court May Shield Mentally Disabled on Executions," by Greg Stohr at Bloomberg News.
The oral arguments transcript in Hall v. Florida is available in Adobe .pdf format.
Earlier coverage of the Florida case begins at the link.
As I often point out, mental retardation is now generally referred to as a developmental or intellectual disability.
Because it has a specific meaning with respect to capital cases, I continue to use the older term on the website. More on Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling banning the execution of those with mental retardation, is via Oyez.
Related posts are in the mental retardation category index.