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The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling last week, invalidated Florida’s practice of using an unscientific, flat IQ score to determine whether a person was too intellectually disabled to put to death. “[T]o impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, “violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being.” The decision in Hall v. Florida, focused on Florida inmate Freddie Lee Hall, a man with an IQ of 71 charged with killing a pregnant woman in 1978. Because of the state’s rigid cutoff score of 70, Hall was not deemed intellectually disabled and therefore became eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court ruled that the score of 70—without accounting for measurement error—is incompatible with the Court’s ban on executing inmates with intellectual disabilities. The ruling means that Florida’s standard for assessing intellectual disability is invalidated, and Hall will get a new sentencing hearing. According to Think Progress, the ruling “makes a strong statement against bright-line IQ rules that do not consider a variety of factors. But Kennedy makes no reference to the broader move by some states to undermine the Supreme Court’s 2002 ban on executing the intellectually disabled through a variety of state standards.” In other words, its unclear how this applies to other state definitions of intellectual disabilities.
Gov. Rick Scott’s (R-FL) 2012 voter purge was so error-riddled that 30 Republican local elections officials refused to carry it out and his hand-picked Secretary of State had to apologize for it. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court issued a ruling repeating what the U.S. Department of Justice said at the time: because the effort came close to the 2012 elections, it was illegal under federal law. To prevent major changes to the voting lists that could disenfranchise citizens by accidentally removing them close to Election Day, Congress included a provision in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act to prevent any purges during that time. The law, commonly know as the “Motor Voter Act” for its provisions allowing people to register to vote when they get their driver’s license, spelled out: A State shall complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for Federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.
The Supreme Court hinted Monday that states should rely on more than straight IQ test results in determining whether an inmate is mentally ill and therefore ineligible for the death penalty. Five justices appeared to side with a Florida inmate who is challenging how the state identifies mentally-ill prisoners on death row. In 2002, the court ruled that executing people with mental disabilities violates their Eighth Amendment rights against “cruel and unusual punishments,” yet justices left the door open for states to define who qualifies as mentally disabled. In Florida, that means prisoners who exceed an IQ score of 70 are barred from claiming a mental disability to escape execution.
I am sitting in front of a stack of Supreme Court briefs, hundreds of pages of legal reasoning and case citations, filled with psychological standards and statistics, all arguing over something that is as much a matter of morality and medicine as it one of law. The question on the table, and the one to be argued Monday at the United States Supreme Court, is whether we are going to continue to execute “mentally retarded”* people in America 12 years after the highest court in the land declared that we could not. I am sitting in front of a stack of papers, written by lawyers for judges, written by bright young men and women, who have rightly focused upon the duality of the issues presented in Hall v. Florida, the case the justices in Washington selected from many options to clarify the scope of their ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. That was the brave and ennobling 2002 decision authored by Justice John Paul Stevens (and joined, notably, by Justice Anthony Kennedy) that was supposed to prohibit one of the most odious aspects of capital punishment in America. I am sitting in front of the language of the law, and I know that it will be this language that decides this case, but the truth is you don’t need to be a lawyer or a legal analyst to understand what this dispute is all about. It’s about Florida saying that its rigid test to determine which intellectually disabled people should be executed—a test that arrogantly refuses to acknowledge a standard error of measurement universally embraced by the scientific community—nonetheless deserves the respect of the people and the trust of the courts. It does not… ———- * While now outdated in common usage and considered offensive by many, the phrase “mental retardation”...
In a few weeks, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Hall v. Florida. The case presents one of the many housekeeping questions that often follow in the wake of a landmark decision breaking new doctrinal ground—here, the question of how to determine whether a criminal defendant is intellectually disabled, and thus categorically ineligible for the death penalty, under the Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. Yet Hall also has potentially far-reaching implications for a whole range of issues quite far afield from death penalty eligibility. Florida argues that states have an important role to play in defining the contours of federal constitutional law. Although that argument is not entirely novel, until now it has only been accepted in very limited circumstances. If the Court were to rule for Florida in the Hall case, it could dramatically undermine the uniformity of federal constitutional law.