The Supreme Court rejected Texas standards for determining which mentally disabled people are exempt from death row. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority opinion saying, “Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake.” Additionally, according to Ginsberg, the standards employed by Texas focused too much on IQ scores and were partially based in stereotypes.
The case in question, Moore v. Texas, concerned Bobby James Moore, a death row inmate who was convicted of murder after shooting an elderly supermarket clerk during a 1980 robbery. The Supreme Court’s decision follows from a 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia that deemed the execution of mentally disabled people as unconstitutional because it is “cruel and unusual punishment,” a direct violation of the Eighth Amendment. However, that decision also gave states a certain amount of leeway as to who could qualify as mentally disabled. Atkins offered some basic guidelines, including low IQ scores, a lack of social skills and the combination of these two things before the age of 18.
As Amy Howe explained on SCOTUSblog.com, before arriving at the highest court, Moore’s case found its way into the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the last stop for criminal cases in Texas, who dismissed Moore’s challenge using a 2004 decision (Ex parte Briseno) issued in that same court. The Briseno decision employed a set of 1992 “evidentiary standards” that used, among other things, the testimony of those who knew the inmate in his earlier years and who could confirm from their own experience that the inmate was mentally disabled.
Justice Ginsburg – who was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor – maintained that the states have “the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce” the constitutional ban on executing disabled people. However, in doing so, they must at least give due consideration to current medical standards.
In making their decision, the high court referred to the Texas court’s rigid use of Moore’s IQ score in making their decision. Moore’s IQ was found to be slightly higher than the cut off of 70; however, according to Ginsburg’s opinion, IQ scores are generally subject to a certain margin of error, meaning Moore’s actual score could be below the cut off.
Of Mice and Men
In its dismissal of Moore’s challenge, the Texas court alluded to Lennie from the John Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men, saying that citizens would probably agree that the fictional character should not be executed due to his inability to employ basic reasoning, while others should be executed.
This argument did not hold up in the Supreme Court, where Justice Ginsburg maintained that the standards used in Texas “are an outlier, in comparison both to other states’ handling of intellectual-disability pleas and to Texas’ own practices in other contexts.”
In his Dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said “clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment.”
A Major Victory
In light of the higher court’s decision, Moore’s case will now be re-evaluated by the Texas court. Amy Howe, in her blog post, said that this is a major victory for “intellectually disabled inmates on death row in Texas” and that “it will likely lead to new litigation in the other states that have not adopted legal definitions of intellectual disability that are not specifically based on the current medical standards.”