By David Menschel, Criminal Defense Lawyer; President, Vital Projects Fund
As the Supreme Court ends its October Term 2013 and heads off for summer recess, it is worth taking a closer look at one of the sleeper cases of the term, Hall v. Florida, a case about intellectual disability and the death penalty. Though Hall received only moderate attention in the press and was depicted as having limited practical reach, it contains significant new avenues for those who oppose the death penalty. The opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, contains small but important analytical shifts that, considering Kennedy’s role not only as the Court’s swing justice but also as the Court’s most vocal interpreter of the Eighth Amendment, could ultimately make it far easier for death penalty opponents to abolish the death penalty entirely.
On the surface at least, Hall strikes little new ground. It mostly clarifies the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision, Atkins v. Virginia, in which the Court ruled that the Constitution forbids the execution of the “mentally retarded” – people we now refer to as “intellectually disabled.” Atkins had largely left it to the states to determine which defendants fall into this category and therefore are exempt from the death penalty. Hall tells certain wayward states like Florida that in order to comply with Atkins, they must determine which defendants are intellectually disabled in a robust, less rigid way and in a manner that is consistent with medicine and science.
Practically speaking, Hall will likely have a modest effect. In the opinion itself, Justice Kennedy estimated that “at most nine states” had laws similar to Florida’s. The New York Times suggested that “only a small number” of death row inmates would qualify for a new hearing as a result of Hall, and the Times cited death penalty expert John Blume, a law professor at Cornell University, who said that the ruling might apply to “10 to 20” inmates. Another Times piece estimated that the ruling “affects roughly 30 death row inmates” about “15 to 20” of whom are in Florida. While it is too soon to know how broad Hall’s practical effect will be – it remains to be seen how it will be applied by lower courts – these estimates suggest that only a tiny fraction of America’s approximately 3,000 death row inmates are likely to be exempted from the death penalty because of Hall.