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March 23, 2020

Ruling 6-3, SCOTUS holds that Due Process does not compel a state to provide a traditional insanity defense in its criminal laws

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its opinion in the fascinating case of Kahler v. Kansas, No. 18-6135 (S. Ct. March 23, 2020) (available here). Justice Kagan authored the opinion of the Court, which starts this way:

This case is about Kansas’s treatment of a criminal defendant’s insanity claim.   In Kansas, a defendant can invoke mental illness to show that he lacked the requisite mens rea (intent) for a crime. He can also raise mental illness after conviction to justify either a reduced term of imprisonment or commitment to a mental health facility.  But Kansas, unlike many States, will not wholly exonerate a defendant on the ground that his illness prevented him from recognizing his criminal act as morally wrong.  The issue here is whether the Constitution’s Due Process Clause forces Kansas to do so — otherwise said, whether that Clause compels the acquittal of any defendant who, because of mental illness, could not tell right from wrong when committing his crime. We hold that the Clause imposes no such requirement.

Notably, in her opinion for the Court, Justice Kagan at various points stresses the fact that defendants in Kansas still can use mental illness matters as mitigating arguments at sentencing. For example:

In sum, Kansas does not bar, but only channels to sentencing, the mental health evidence that falls outside its intent-based insanity defense.  When combined with Kansas’s allowance of mental health evidence to show a defendant’s inability to form criminal intent, that sentencing regime defeats Kahler’s charge that the State has “abolish[ed] the insanity defense entirely." Brief for Petitioner 39....

If a mentally ill defendant had enough cognitive function to form the intent to kill, Kansas law directs a conviction even if he believed the murder morally justified.  In Kansas’s judgment, that delusion does not make an intentional killer entirely blameless.  See Brief for Respondent 40.  Rather than eliminate, it only lessens the defendant’s moral culpability.  See ibid.  And sentencing is the appropriate place to consider mitigation: The decisionmaker there can make a nuanced evaluation of blame, rather than choose, as a trial jury must, between all and nothing. See ibid.

Justice Breyer authored a dissenting opinion, which Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor joined, and it gets started this way: 

Like the Court, I believe that the Constitution gives the States broad leeway to define state crimes and criminal procedures, including leeway to provide different definitions and standards related to the defense of insanity.  But here, Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense.  Rather, it has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries: that the defendant, due to mental illness, lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy.  Seven hundred years of Anglo-American legal history, together with basic principles long inherent in the nature of the criminal law itself, convince me that Kansas’ law “‘offends . . . principle[s] of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.’” Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 798 (1952) (quoting Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105 (1934)).

I am disinclined to pass judgement on these opinions before I get a chance to read them closely. But because I have long thought that so-called "excuse" defenses like insanity were more properly considered at the sentencing stage than the guilt stage, I am not inherently troubled by the essential of this ruling.  That said, it is worth noting here that if and when a defendant is subject to a severe mandatory minimum sentencing term (as is often the case for more serious crimes), Justice Kagan's assertion that a "decisionmaker [at sentencing] can make a nuanced evaluation of blame"  will not really be accurate.  And so I am going to be eager to try to (over)read Kahler as a statement that allowing a decisionmaker sentencing discretion is an important Due Process consideration (and this principle also finds expression in the Eighth Amendment in cases like Lockett and Miller).

March 23, 2020 at 10:53 AM | Permalink

Comments

Once Clark v. Arizona was decided, this decision seems to naturally follow. If anything, Clark (where the Supreme Court affirmed a state law that denied the defendant a right to present a defense that would negate an element of the offense) seems the tougher case than this one that simply disallows the presentation of an affirmative defense.

I do think there's some interesting thoughts worth considering whether a state could disallow self-defense based on this case, but that's obviously far afield.

Posted by: Erik M | Mar 23, 2020 4:00:06 PM

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