On Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ test for determining which inmates are intellectually disabled and therefore constitutionally protected from capital punishment. Texas’ use of outdated and unscientific “medical guidance” to gauge “intellectual functioning,” the majority held, violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.” The 5–3 decision in Moore v. Texas marks the court’s latest attempt to prevent states from justifying the execution of disabled inmates using arbitrary or capricious standards.
Under 2002’s Atkins v. Virginia, states are forbidden from executing individuals with intellectual disabilities. But Atkins allowed states to create their own rules for determining when an inmate fit this category. In 2014’s Hall v. Florida, the court noted that states’ discretion here is not “unfettered”—it must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” If states had “complete autonomy to define intellectual disability as they wished,” the court explained, “Atkins could become a nullity, and the Eighth Amendment’s protection of human dignity would not become a reality.”
Texas, however, currently rejects the medical community’s current framework in favor of obsolete standards. To determine whether an inmate is disabled, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that courts must use intellectual disability guides written in 1992. In addition, the CCA allowed courts to use pseudoscientific “evidentiary factors” drawn from stereotypes of disabled people and the character of Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (Seriously.) For instance, the CCA fixated on the fact that the inmate in this case, Bobby James Moore, demonstrated “adaptive strengths,” such as the ability to mow lawns and play pool. The CCA seemed to believe that all intellectually disabled people are, as one amicus brief put it, “incapable of any but the most rudimentary tasks,” and that individuals with any “adaptive skill” cannot be disabled.
Current medical consensus rejects this misconception as little more than a “lay stereotype.” But that didn’t matter to Texas. In fact, the CCA actually barred lower courts from using more recent science in evaluating a death row inmate’s claim of intellectual disability.
In a decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court found that these standards clearly violated Atkins and Hall. “As we instructed in Hall,” Ginsburg explained, “adjudications of intellectual disability should be ‘informed by the views of medical experts.’ That instruction cannot sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community’s consensus.” Moreover, Texas uses several alleged “indicators of intellectual disability” that “are an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source.”
“Not aligned with the medical community’s information,” Ginsburg wrote, “and drawing no strength from our precedent,” these factors create “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” Accordingly, Texas must permit the use of “current medical standards” in determining whether an individual is intellectually disabled and may not use the “wholly nonclinical” factors concocted by the CCA.
In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, complained that the court looked to “medical assessment[s] of clinical practice” rather than “societal standards of decency” to determine whether Texas’ guidelines violate the Eighth Amendment. According to Roberts, the court should’ve looked to see whether other states operated under similar rules; if a sufficient number of them did, then Texas could not, by definition, have breached “societal standards of decency.” But even Roberts admitted that the factors drawn from stereotypes and literature cannot possibly comport with the Eighth Amendment.
Tuesday’s decision is a significant contribution to the Supreme Court’s developing—and increasingly progressive—case law regarding capital punishment and intellectual disability. Justice Anthony Kennedy, Ginsburg, and the court’s three other liberals have made great strides in limiting states’ ability to execute inmates with mental impairments. The bad news is that the ruling split 5–3 on predictable ideological grounds. This line of cases is recent and controversial, making it a tempting target for reversal by a future conservative majority. As Moore makes clear, the lives of intellectually disabled inmates still depend upon the balance of the Supreme Court.