Supreme Court Justices Appear Skeptical of Florida Standards on Intellectual Disability in Capital Case
By Kelli Chavez, Undergraduate Public Policy Intern

On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Hall v. Florida concerning whether Florida law sufficiently guards against the execution of people with “mental retardation” (intellectual disability), as is required under its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia.  Florida’s current means of determining that a person is mentally disabled—and, hence, ineligible for execution—is if he or she scores 70 or below on a standard IQ test. However, it is universally accepted that all IQ tests must be interpreted taking into account their inherent standard error of measurement. Hall’s counsel argued that the state must consider the five percent margin of error included in IQ tests, much as it does in other instances when mental disability is measured, such as in the educational and vocational contexts.  Hall took nine different IQ tests between 1968 and 2008, with an average score of less than 73.

Florida is one of only five states that use a rigid IQ test score cutoff of 70 or below for determining mental retardation, while barring consideration of the standard error of measurement.  Further, Florida fails to consider the “adaptive functioning” of a person (i.e., his or her ability to deal with social situations and other real-world challenges), or if mental retardation was present prior to adulthood (a Florida court recognized Mr. Hall as being “mentally retarded his entire life”).

Hall’s lawyer, former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman, argued that, taken together, the rigidity of the IQ number and the refusal to consider other factors determinative of whether a person has an intellectual disability make Florida’s current system for determining intellectual disability in a capital case an unconstitutional violation of Atkins.  The Constitution Project filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Hall, arguing that Florida’s outlier approach to defining “mental retardation” is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and undermines respect for the criminal justice system.

Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor defended the current statute, arguing that Florida has “an interest in making sure that people do not evade execution by claiming mental retardation.”   During oral arguments, a majority of the Justices appeared to express concern with the Florida’s decision not to take into consideration the established margin of error.  If the court rules in favor of the petitioner, it will affect only a small number (five) of states, but the ruling will be critical to ensuring constitutional application of the death penalty throughout the United States.  A decision is expected later in the spring.

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