by John H. Blume, Professor of Law, Cornell University Law School
On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in Hall v. Florida. The narrow but important question the Court must decide is whether persons who have been clinically diagnosed with mental retardation (now commonly referred to as intellectual disability) can nevertheless be put to death if they cannot satisfy the rigid IQ test score cutoff of 70 established by the Florida Supreme Court—a cutoff clearly inconsistent with the commonly agreed upon definition of mental retardation embraced by the Court in its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia which all but a handful of outlier states use.
In Atkins, the Court recognized that a “national consensus” had developed against executing persons with mental retardation and concluded that the practice is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Prior to Atkins, Florida courts had determined that “Freddie Lee Hall has been mentally retarded his entire life.” One would think this is a simple case. It should be. Yet, Hall is at risk of being executed. How could this be?
The Atkins Court relied upon the clinical definitions developed by the two premier professional organizations in the field: the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), now the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD); and, the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Both definitions have three prongs: significantly subaverage intellectual functioning; adaptive functioning deficits; and onset during the developmental period. Only the first prong is at issue in Hall, and without getting too “deep in the weeds,” significantly subaverage intellectual functioning is understood as an IQ of approximately 70. The question is—at bottom—a simple one: is Florida free—post-Atkins—to adopt a definition of intellectual functioning for capital cases, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the professional consensus regarding the use of IQ tests?
The Atkins Court believed (correctly) that the statutory definitions in States banning the execution of persons with intellectual disability “generally conform to the clinical definitions.” Florida’s statute, enacted in 2001, is no exception, and defines intellectual disability in keeping with clinical definitions, as deficits in intellectual and adaptive functioning with onset prior to age 18. As the legislative staff analysis accompanying the bill made clear, the law was not intended to legislate a rigid IQ cutoff for establishing intellectual disability. Despite the legislative analysis and clear clinical consensus against doing so, the Florida Supreme Court, in an effort to limit Atkins’ impact, held in 2007 in Cherry v. State that the statute established a rigid IQ test cutoff of 70. If an individual does not have an IQ score below 70, then they can no longer be found to be a person with mental retardation in Florida. Thus, despite the fact that before Atkins Hall had been “mentally retarded his whole life,” he no longer satisfies the new state criteria.
Why does this matter? Experts in the field know that IQ test scores are not exact. For that reason, a standard measurement of error of +/- 5 points is universally used by clinicians in assessing IQ scores. Thus a person with an IQ of 75 could be clinically determined to be intellectually disabled. However, as a result of the Florida Supreme Court’s rejection of the science underlying IQ scores, individuals like Mr. Hall, who have been diagnosed by highly trained competent professionals as having mental retardation, can be executed if they have obtained an IQ test score a mere point or two above 70.
This is unconscionable. Under accepted clinical standards, Mr. Hall is a person with intellectual disability. His scores on reliable, individualized IQ tests for the most part cluster around 69-74, a range that both the AAIDD and the APA recognize as consistent with intellectual disability. Hall was first determined to be intellectually disabled in elementary school, and he has been diagnosed with intellectual disability by numerous psychiatrists and psychologists who have examined him over the years and he was even found by a Florida state judge to be a person with an intellectual disability prior to Atkins. Stripped down to its essence, the issue in Hall v. Florida, is whether—despite the clear clinical consensus that Hall falls within the class of persons guaranteed exemption from capital punishment by the Supreme Court of the United States—Florida can utilize a strict (and arbitrary) 70 IQ cutoff to deny what is clinically obvious; Hall is intellectually disabled.
In Atkins, the Supreme Court “le[ft] to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction.” But, surely the Court was envisioning permitting states to develop procedures for adjudicating whether a person falls within the protected category or persons, not granting states license to redefine the category the Court had already concluded there was a consensus against executing. Florida’s decision to redefine intellectual disability to turn on a possible single point on an IQ test, without consideration of the standard error of measurement or the other two prongs of the clinical definition, not only flouts clinical expertise but, for some persons like Hall, guts the substantive constitutional protection of Atkins.
Fortunately, most states have rejected the myopic definition of “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning” created by the Florida Supreme Court, and instead have embraced the clinically agreed upon understanding of the phrase relied upon by the Atkins’ Court. Thus, a ruling in Hall’s favor will not affect many states or—for that matter—many cases. Nevertheless, the case is still important, not only to Hall—whose life literally hangs in the balance—and other Floridians with an intellectual disability, but also to make clear that states cannot narrow a categorical ban created by the Supreme Court intended to protect a vulnerable group from wrongful execution.