Supreme Court's Conservatives Attack Psychiatric Profession As Elites Who Undermine The Death Penalty

The U.S. Supreme Court’s latest death penalty ruling exposes the cruel, unusual and anti-scientific bias of the court’s right-wing justices. Those justices were frustrated that their court’s majority rejected Florida’s use of a rigid IQ test to decide if an "intellectually disabled" man should be executed instead of spending life in prison.


The case, Hall v. Florida, considered whether the man, who beat, raped and shot a pregnant woman in 1978, should receive the death penalty because his IQ was just over the 70-point IQ test threshold approved by Florida’s supreme court. Kentucky, Virginia and Alabama have almost identical death penalty laws. Five other states have similar strict IQ thresholds: Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina and Washington.    

What made the justices’ dissent so striking was that it backed a modern version of conservative mob rule—based on the most draconian state laws—and then attacked the latest scientific standards to measure mental disability. It was written by Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. and signed by John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

In contrast, the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said “intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”

The U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment. The four dissenting justices said that what’s cruel and unusual depends on evolving societal norms, and cited actions taken by state Legislatures—where in recent years get-tough-on-crime conservatives have imposed overly harsh sentences. The dissenters said these laws were the “clearest and most reliable objective evidence of contemporary values.”

That assertion is absurd; many corners of the legal profession view mandatory prison sentences as expensive and counter-productive, especially if prisoners will eventually be released. But the Court’s right-wingers apparently want more certainty and less moral ambiguities in death penalty sentences.

That’s where they then went after the American Psychiatric Association’s latest disability standards, saying that they were too flexible in determining if a killer should be exempt from execution. They stridently objected to the APA’s contention that the IQ tests results for mental retardation are a range—not a simple bright line.

“Today, the Court overrules [Florida’s Supreme Court]… based largely on the positions adopted by private professional associations,” they said. “In taking this step, the Court sharply departs from the framework prescribed in prior Eighth Amendment cases and adopts a uniform national rule that is both conceptually unsound and likely to result in confusion.”

The conservative’s attack did not stop there.

“In these prior cases, when the Court referred to the evolving standards of a maturing ‘society,’ the Court meant the standards of American society as a whole. Now, however, the Court strikes down a state law based on the evolving standards of professional societies, most notably the American Psychiatric Association (APA).”

It’s not every day that the Court’s conservatives attack the mental health field’s signature association for their evolving standards, which are based on current science.

“I cannot follow the Court’s logic,” they wrote. “Under our modern Eighth Amendment cases, what counts are our society’s standards—which is to say, the standards of the American people—not the standards of professional associations, which at best represent the views of a small professional elite.”

An APA spokesman declined to comment on the ruling on Wednesday. The state of Florida will now have to go back and make a more thorough examination of the mental health disabilities of the convicted murderer whose death sentence launched this case, Kennedy wrote. In other death-penalty cases where he wrote the majority opinion, the Court struck down capital punishment for the mentally disabled, juveniles and for non-homicidal crimes.

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