Opinion
SCOTUS ruling on intellectual disability is monumental
Old Gold & Black
By
Staff Columnist
Friday, April 7, 2017

Many groups are overlooked in the American political context and the intellectually disabled are certainly no exception.

In the aftermath of the election, there was much talk on the left and the right about different people who have been left behind or feel like their government does not represent and speak for them, but very little discussion was devoted to those who face tremendous challenges to even fit decently into mainstream society.

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities notes that people who are intellectually disabled suffer “significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior,” which means that “many everyday social and practical skills” are decidedly difficult for them.

The challenges that people with intellectual disabilities face in this country are many, but a much narrower issue that the Supreme Court decided last week concerned the use of outdated medical standards regarding intellectual disability to determine whether a person is exempt from execution.

In a 5-3 ruling, the Supreme Court held in Moore v. Texas that the use of such standards violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The result was a victory for Bobby James Moore, an intellectually disabled Texas inmate who faces the possibility of the death penalty. He will now get a chance at a new sentencing since the Supreme Court ruled that the state court applied the wrong standards to conclude that he was not disabled and therefore could be executed.

But the ramifications of this decision extend far beyond Moore’s case.

In deciding that states cannot adhere to out-of-date standards and instead must seek out guidance from current ones, the Supreme Court redefined intellectual disability from a legal standpoint.

Before this case, there was no uniform specification which mandated that states have to look for guidance from current medical standards. Now there is, and that marks a noteworthy shift in the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.

The holding is part of a larger story of the Supreme Court’s developing understanding of cruel and unusual punishment and it draws upon a case from 15 years ago which stated that the intellectually disabled cannot be executed even if they have been convicted of murder. 

However, Justices Roberts, Alito and Thomas dissented in the Moore case last week. They asserted that the majority’s reasoning was flawed because it established that “the determination of what is cruel and unusual rests on a judicial judgment about societal standards of decency, not a medical assessment of clinical practice.”

They also suggested that this ruling effectively turns medical learning into a constitutional mandate, which they said does not comport with a proper interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.

Yet it hardly seems reasonable that a man should have to die because evaluators used outdated medical standards which improperly assessed his condition.

This case quite literally was a life-or-death situation for a member of society who most do not even think much about and it paves the way for people like Moore to be spared from a horrible fate that the Supreme Court has previously deemed unjust for someone of his circumstances.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is a step forward, and it also raises awareness for a segment of the American population that is all too often passed over by policy makers and citizens alike.