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March 3, 2014

SCOTUS finally to grapple with how states are applying Atkins

I helped represent a Texas death-row defendant with a very low IQ in habeas appeals years before the 2002 SCOTUS ruling in Atkins v. Virginia decided the Eighth Amendment precludes execution of murderers who are mental retarded.  As a result of that work two decades ago, I have long been interested in the question the Supreme Court will this morning finally confront at oral argument in Hall v. Florida: how can (or must) states define and apply mental retardation for purposes of determining who is excluded from execution due to Atkins.

For a variety of reasons, Hall could end up being a huge case about constitutionally required sentencing procedures that could impact lots of cases outside the context of the death penalty.  I suspect, however, that some Justices will be eager to ensure the Court's work in Hall ends up modest and limited.  For this reason, I think today's oral argument may provide an interesting window into how certain Justices are approaching Hall and this broader issues of procedure and federalism that it raises.

I expect to post on the substance of the Hall oral argument later this week.  But for more pre-game analysis, here are a few media reports and commentaries on Hall:

March 3, 2014 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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I'm very interested to see what they do here. At a minimum, the case does fall on the idea that the state can't legislate its way out of the Constitution. The actual answer they reach, I don't know. My expectation is something narrow. Either that Florida's scheme is within a range of valid options given what we know about determining MR or that, given what we know about determining MR, Florida's scheme is unreasonable. If they do the latter, they'll probably talk about the currently accepted scientific techniques to push it in that direction while still saying that they aren't absolutely requiring a certain test or formula.

I don't think we've had a Constitutional test determined by medical knowledge since Roe and I doubt they'll explicitly go that far again.

Posted by: Erik M | Mar 3, 2014 10:22:56 AM

Scotusblog noted Kennedy was dubious about the state and brought up Breyer's repeat concern at one point apparently to the surprise of the state given it wasn't really at issue -- the long time on death row inmate issue.


Posted by: Joe | Mar 3, 2014 4:03:36 PM

Amicus briefs in support of Mr. Hall were filed by the American Psychological Association and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Those are the professional clinical organizations the Court relied on to craft its definition of "mental retardation" (now "intellectual disability") in Atkins. Seems like those could be pretty influential amicus briefs.

Posted by: Phil Jensen | Mar 3, 2014 4:29:47 PM

Didn't the guy take the test and get an 80?

Posted by: federalist | Mar 3, 2014 11:48:56 PM

His scores were 76, 79, 80, 60, 73, 74, 69, 71, 72. The makers of the test suggest using the "composite score" in these circumstances as opposed to the mean. The average is 71 (within the margin of error, but certainly not, by itself, sufficient to establish MR) and the composite score would be 69. So yes, he took "a" test and got an 80, but he also took a test and got a 60. I think it demonstrates there are problems with relying on IQ without looking at the other two. While it's permissible to require the defendant to prove all three elements, it seems that a stronger showing in elements two and three can make up for an ambiguous element one.

More importantly, it's entirely possible the defendant will fail to establish his claim on remand. But the Court (Justice Scalia in particular) indicated that they didn't want to just say "The state complied with Atkins in this case" and then have to worry about a situation where the defendant scored slightly different numbers. They have to craft a generally applicable rule.

Posted by: Erik M | Mar 4, 2014 8:04:31 AM

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