Florida Supreme Court.
Florida Supreme Court. (Photo: Tim Ross via Wikimedia Commons.)

A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s rigid method for determining whether a death row inmate is too intellectually disabled to be executed.
Ruling 5-4 in Hall v. Florida, the court said the Florida Supreme Court’s determination that anyone with an IQ above 70 need not be scrutinized for other mitigating factors “disregards established medical practice” and violates the Eighth Amendment bar against cruel and unusual punishment.
“This rigid rule, the Court now holds, creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. Read earlier coverage here in The National Law Journal.
The decision is a reaffirmation of Atkins v. Virginia, the 2002 ruling against the execution of the mentally retarded. In Atkins, the justices suggested that “clinical definitions of mental retardation require not only subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and self-direction that became manifest before age 18.”
Although Florida law tracks those three elements, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that if the person’s IQ is above 70, there is no consideration of the remaining two elements: adaptive skills and onset of intellectually disability before age 18. In considering the IQ score, there also is no consideration of the standard error of measurement adopted by most clinicians because of the inherent imprecision in IQ tests.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote a dissent that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
“In taking this step,” Alito wrote, “the court sharply departs from the framework prescribed in prior Eighth Amendment cases and adopts a uniform national rule that is both conceptually unsound and likely to result in confusion.”
Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com.