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SCOTUS Rejects Texas's Death Penalty Standards for Disabled Inmates

Texas's standards for evaluating mentally disabled death row inmates are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Until Tuesday, when asked to determine if an inmate was too mentally disabled to execute, Texas relied on a medical definition from 1992, since superseded, and a set of nonclinical factors known as the "Lennie standard." That's Lennie as in Lennie Small, the sweet-natured but simple-minded character from Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."

The Death Penalty, Texas, and Steinbeck

The case, Moore v. Texas, came before the Court decades after Bobby James Moore was convicted in 1980 for the murder of a grocery store clerk. Moore remained on death row for years, despite strong evidence that he was severely mentally handicapped. His average IQ was 70, for example, and as a teenager he did not know the days of the week and could not tell the difference between addition and subtraction.

Moore eventually challenged his capital sentence and won. A Texas habeas court applied contemporary medical standards and found that Moore was mentally disabled. Under the Supreme Court's rulings in Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment forbids executing the intellectually disabled.

But Hall also granted states wide leeway in determining when an inmate is disabled. And Texas's Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the habeas court's interpretation. The proper standard, the Texan standard, the CCA explained, was established in Ex parte Briseno. In Briseno, the court ruled that the 1992 definition of intellectual disability must be used and it further set out seven nonclinical evidentiary factors, in an attempt to "define that level and degree of mental retardation at which a consensus of Texas citizens would agree that a person should be exempted from the death penalty."

In an unfortunate line, the court explained that "Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt." The court's factors have been known as the "Lennie standard" ever since, a name that doesn't exactly reflect the seriousness of a court's life-and-death disability determinations.

Tossing the Texas's Death Penalty Disability Standard

Those factors were unsupportable, the Supreme Court ruled, as was Texas's reliance on outdated medical definitions. Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion of the Court, which split 5-3, explaining that courts cannot be given leave "to diminish the force of the medical community's consensus."

States may have discretion in evaluating disabilities under Hall, Justice Ginsburg explained, but that discretion must also be "informed by the views of medical experts." Further, "by design and in operation," Texas's "Lennie standard" creates too great a risk that the intellectually disabled will be executed, the Court explained. "Lay stereotypes" of intellectual disability are no way to make such decisions, the Court concluded.

Those factors, the court noted, are not employed in other contexts. They are not used to assess students or to diagnose juveniles in the criminal justice system, for example. "Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts," Justice Ginsburg wrote, "yet clings to superseded standards when an individual's life is at stake."

Dissent Wonders Who's in Charge

Chief Justice Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. The dissenters agreed that the Lennie factors "are an unacceptable method of enforcing the guarantee of Atkins." On that, the Court was unanimous.

But the Chief Justice expressed a "broader concern" with the majority opinion -- namely, that it gives too much authority to the medical community. "[C]linicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards," the Chief Justice writes, "and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment."

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