The Supreme Court made a decision on Tuesday in the Moore v. Texas case regarding the standards for an intellectually disabled inmate and therefore the standard for those protected from capital punishment. According to the majority in the vote, Texas uses outdated and unfounded gauges to determine intellectual function. Such standards are in violation of the ban on cruel and unusual punishments outlined in the Eighth Amendment. This decision by the Supreme Court is merely the latest in a string of decisions that have prevented states from executing disabled inmates for unjustifiable reasons under arbitrary or non-existent standards.
In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the government is forbidden from executing those with intellectual disabilities. However, that case left it open for individual states to set their own standards for what inmates fell into that category. In the more recent Hall v. Florida in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the state can not merely create arbitrary guidelines, but that their standards must be based on the standard medical framework in its current form. Without such a standard, the ruling from 2002 would essentially become null and void.
Even after the 2014 ruling, Texas continued to reject the standard medical community approach to characterizing intellectual disability. Instead, they operated under obsolete standards that have been proven inaccurate and in some cases completely unscientific. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the Texas courts could only use guidelines written in 1992 when determining the intellectual capabilities of an inmate. Not only that, but the ruling stated that courts could and should use certain ‘evidentiary factors’ that were based on pseudoscience and stereotypes of disabled people. They even mentioned the character Lennie from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
In the case of Moore v. Texas, the CCA of Texas argued that since Moore displayed what they called ‘adaptive strengths’, he was not truly disabled. They presented evidence that Moore could play pool and mow lawns, which fell into the category of ‘adaptive skills’. They argued anyone who could learn an adaptive skill was not truly intellectually disabled since, according to them, disabled people are only capable of the most rudimentary tasks.
Of course, everyone in the modern world with even a hint of understanding toward the world of disabilities knows that view is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation of reality. The medical community rejects the argument of the CCA of Texas as nothing more than a stereotype translated into legal terms. However, there were even instances when lower courts in Texas were barred from using recent scientific evidence when characterizing an inmate on death row as intellectually disabled.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the decision, stating that Texas’ standards did not meet the requirements of their previous rulings. She stated that standards must be informed by medical experts, and that those used by Texas were not acknowledged by any credible medical source. Not only that, but there was no precedent where any of those standards could be called upon favorably. According to the ruling, the system used by Texas left unacceptable risk for the wrongful execution of those with intellectual disabilities.
The three judges that voted in dissent claimed that the court was basing its decision too heavily on clinical assessment and not enough on societal decency standards. They argued the court should have considered the guidelines used by other states using similar rules, if they existed at all. If they did, the judges argued, it could hardly be stated that Texas was acting out of indecency. Of course, there is a huge difference between societal standards of such decency and the Eighth Amendment.