Tuesday, March 01, 2005

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Roper v. Simmons

Having waded through opinion, here are the highlights: yes the Court has ruled that we may no longer execute juvenile offenders. It is about damn time. Mr. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which without the appendices is shorter than Scalia's dissent. First, some basic facts of the case; Christopher Simmons committed premeditated murder, he kidnapped his victim, and brutally murdered her. He was not a nice young man. He told his friends he wanted to kill someone and then he bragged about killing "the bitch" because she had seen his face. So he isn't a nice kid at the time of the crime, and who knows what he has grown up to be living on death row. It is no real wonder the jury did not like him much, although he did wave his Miranda right to remain silent, not very bright and this alone may illustrate he was a kid.

The opinion is written in three parts, the first part is based a on "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" to determine which punishments are so disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual.Trop v. Dulles. The Court then begins to report on the these evolving standards, beginning with their own Atkins decision, and using it as a basis for this decision. Because only 18 states have the death penalty for juveniles, and when the Court last took up the issue 22 states did, there is a trend as the Court sees it toward moving away from executing juveniles.

As in Atkins, the objective indicia of consensus in this case
the rejection of the juvenile death penalty in the majority of
States; the infrequency of its use even where it remains on the
books; and the consistency in the trend toward abolition of the
pratice--provide sufficient evidence that today our society views
juveniles, in the words Atkins used respecting the mentally retarded,
as "categorically less culpable than the average criminal.

The second part of the opinion notes that there are general accepted differences between juveniles and adults and therefore juveniles cannot be considered among the worst offenders. First, a lack of maturity and an under developed sense of responsibility. Second, juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure. And finally, the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that as an adult. The Court notes that "In recognition of the comparative immaturity and irresponsibility of juveniles, almost every State prohibits those under 18 years of age from voting, serving on juries, or marrying without parental consent." And then goes on to point out that "If trained psychiatrists with the advantage of clinical testing and observation refrain, despite diagnostic expertise, from assessing any juvenile under 18 as having antisocial personality disorder, we conclude that States should refrain from asking jurors to issue a far graver condemnation--that a juvenile offender merits the death penalty.

The final, shortest, least stressed and from my reading the least important section of the opinion of the Court speaks of international standards of decency.

Our determination that the death penalty is disproportionate
punishment for offenders under 18 finds confirmation in the
stark reality that the United States is the only country in
the world that continues to give official sanction to the
juvenile death penalty.

Not once in the opinion does the Court state that the juvenile death penalty should be done away with because European nations have done so, but only use the fact that they have to illustrate the shift in mores. The Court ends its opinion on this note

It does not lessen our fidelity to the Constitution
or our pride in its origins to acknowledge that the
express affirmation of certain fundamental rights by
other nations and peoples simply underscores the centrality
of those same rights within our own heritage of freedom.

My take:
All in all it is a well written, well thought out opinion. It logically goes through the reasons why juveniles shouldn't be executed for crimes. It also answers Scalia's dissent, where Kennedy perceives the opinion might be vunerable, that is the last section, which is why I loved the last line of the opinion.

The concurring paragraph from Mr. Justice Stevens and Mrs. Justice Ginsberg deserves mention as well because it shots originalism in the foot.

Perhaps even more important than our specific holding
today is our reaffirmation of the basic principle that
informs the Court's interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.
If the meaning of that Amendment had been frozen when
it was originally drafted, it would impose no impediment
to the execution of 7-year old children today. The evolving
standards of decency that have driven our construction of
this critically important part of the Bill of Rights foreclose
any such reading of the Amendment.


Scalia's dissent in the next post.