U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court strikes down Texas mental disability standards for death-penalty eligibility

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The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the standards used by the state of Texas to determine whether an inmate has a mental disability that makes him ineligible for the death penalty.

The court ruled on Monday in a 5-3 decision (PDF). Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The court ruled in the case of Bobby James Moore, who shot and killed a store clerk in a robbery. A state habeas court had found Moore was intellectually disabled, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found in 2015 that the habeas court had used the wrong standard. According to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the habeas court should have relied on seven evidentiary factors it set out in a 2004 decision, rather than consulting current medical community standards.

Though the 2004 Texas decision adopted the definition and standards for mental disability contained in a 1992 manual published by the American Association on Mental Retardation, the court’s seven evidentiary factors did not cite “any authority, medical or judicial,” Ginsburg said.

The Supreme Court vacated the Court of Criminal Appeals judgment. “Adjudications of intellectual disability should be ‘informed by the views of medical experts,’ ” Ginsburg wrote, citing a 2014 Supreme Court decision.

“Moreover,” Ginsburg wrote, the factors established by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals “are an invention of the CCA untied to any acknowledged source,” and they create an unacceptable risk that a person with an intellectual disability will be executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Texas is an “outlier,” Ginsburg said, when compared to how other states determine intellectual disability, and even when compared to its own practices in other contexts.

Evidence developed in the state habeas hearing showed that Moore had significant mental and social difficulties beginning at an early age, Ginsburg said. “At 13,” Ginsburg wrote, “Moore lacked basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year, and the seasons; he could scarcely tell time or comprehend the standards of measure or the basic principle that subtraction is the reverse of addition.” He failed every subject in the ninth grade and dropped out of school.

Moore had an IQ score of 74, which yields a range of 69 to 79 when adjusted for the standard error of measurement, Ginsburg said. Because the lower end of the range fell below 70, Texas courts were obligated to consider Moore’s adaptive functioning, according to Ginsburg.

That doesn’t mean the Eighth Amendment turns on slight numerical differences in IQ scores, Ginsburg said. Rather, the score means courts cannot end the disability inquiry and should move on to consider adaptive functions.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had found that Moore displayed adaptive strengths because he was able to live in the streets, and mow lawns and play pool for money. The Texas court also said Moore displayed adaptive strengths in prison. But the medical community instead focuses on adaptive deficits, and cautions against relying on adaptive strengths in controlled settings, Ginsburg said.

The Texas court also cited childhood abuse, suffering and academic failure as a reasons for Moore’s intellectual and adaptive deficits. “Those traumatic experiences, however, count in the medical community as ‘risk factorsfor intellectual disability,” Ginsburg said.

The ABA had filed an amicus brief that argued the Texas standards violate the Eighth Amendment.

Chief Judge John G. Roberts Jr. dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Roberts said he agreed that Texas used the wrong standards to assess mental disability, but he believes the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was correct in its assessment of Moore’s intellectual functioning.

Roberts also said the majority improperly crafted a constitutional holding that relies solely on medical consensus, without considering practices of the states. “Clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment,” Roberts wrote.

The case is Moore v. Texas.

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