SCOTUS Spanks Texas For Unlawful Disability Tests In Executions

Kevin Daley | Supreme Court Reporter

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the factors Texas uses to assess intellectual disability for death row inmates are unconstitutional, further restricting the circumstances under which inmates may be put to death.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion for the Court, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

The case concerned a Texas inmate named Bobby James Moore, who was sentenced to death for his role in shooting death of a grocery store clerk. Moore’s lawyers argued that he is intellectually disabled, noting that his IQ has registered as low as 57 (and as high as 78.) He struggled with basic addition and subtraction well into his teenage years, and couldn’t tell time until his adolescence. The Supreme Court declared the execution of the mentally disabled unconstitutional in 2002.

States are afforded some latitude in determining what constitutes mental disability. The set of factors Texas uses to assess disability are called the “Briseno factors.” Critics charge the test is unscientific and reflective of lay stereotypes about mental disability. The Texas judge who established the factors compared them to the characteristics of Lennie Small, the gentle, ham-handed giant in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

The Briseno factors are not the only test Texas relies on in assessing disability. In most circumstances, they supplement other evaluations.

The Court determined that the tests states apply must reflect a medically-sound diagnostic framework.

“Adjudications of intellectual disability should be ‘informed by the views of medical experts,'” Ginsburg wrote. “That instruction cannot sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community’s consensus.”

Ginsburg added that the Briseno factors “are an outlier, in comparison both to other states’ handling of intellectual-disability pleas and to Texas’ own practices in other contexts.”

Following Moore’s conviction, a trial court concluded that he was mentally disabled, and could not be executed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated that ruling, and determined he could be executed. Today’s decision almost ensures he will not be put to death.

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the ruling, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. The dissenters argued courts should not determine what clinical factors are appropriate to a medical diagnosis.

The case marks the second time this term the high court has found against Texas in a death penalty case.

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