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May 27, 2014

"Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number. See DSM–5, at 37."

The title of this post is the sentence and cite that perhaps best summarized the work of the majority of the Supreme Court this morning in Hall v. Florida (opinion here, basics here).  In Hall, the Court rejects as violative of the Eighth Amendment Florida's use of a bright-line IQ test cut-off set at 70 for defining who is eligible for execution (while dodging whether a cut off set at 75 would be okay) based principally on the medical community's consensus view that IQ tests are just one factor in assessing intellectual disability and are necessarily imprecise.  Here are just a few excerpts from the majority opinion in Hall that highlight these themes:

That this Court, state courts, and state legislatures consult and are informed by the work of medical experts in determining intellectual disability is unsurprising.  Those professionals use their learning and skills to study and consider the consequences of the classification schemes they devise in the diagnosis of persons with mental or psychiatric disorders or disabilities.  Society relies upon medical and professional expertise to define and explain how to diagnose the mental condition at issue....

Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways. It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence.  It also relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of the defendant’s abilities, his IQ score, while refusing to recognize that the score is, on its own terms, imprecise....

It is the Court’s duty to interpret the Constitution, but it need not do so in isolation. The legal determination of intellectual disability is distinct from a medical diagnosis, but it is informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.  Atkins itself points to the diagnostic criteria employed by psychiatric professionals. And the professional community’s teachings are of particular help in this case, where no alternative definition of intellectual disability is presented and where this Court and the States have placed substantial reliance on the expertise of the medical profession....

This Court agrees with the medical experts that when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowl­edged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disa­bility, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits.

Not surprisingly, the dissent in Hall recognizes and criticizes the majority's heavy reliance on the medical community's approach to determining intellectual disability.  Here is a snippet of this criticism from the dissent:

Under our modern Eighth Amendment cases, what counts are our society’s standards — which is to say, the standards of the American people — not the standards of professional associations, which at best represent the views of a small professional elite....

The Court’s reliance on the views of professional associ­ations will also lead to serious practical problems.

May 27, 2014 at 11:36 AM | Permalink


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The only countries that execute more people than the U.S. are China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Hopefully, this decision will give the U.S. some real separation from those beacons of morality.

Posted by: Fred | May 27, 2014 11:59:19 AM

Fun with qualifiers. The majority notes the expertise here "informs" its analysis but how "heavy" is this reliance? Also, the abortion cases comes to mind though Kennedy might not favor too much reliance there.

Posted by: Joe | May 27, 2014 12:07:38 PM

If one defines retardation as two standard deviations below the mean, with 15 IQ points being one standard deviation, the real cut off line should be at an IQ of 55. The average IQ in prison is 85, not 100 as it is in the street.

The IQ was developed to predict educational attainment, and professional success. It does so very well. It was not designed to determine culpability. This decision violates Daubert standards.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 28, 2014 12:10:42 AM

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