The Cautionary Instruction: The Eighth Amendment — a matter of human dignity

Friday, 30 May 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

supremecourt 2013wap150This week the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability and in turn eligibility for the death penalty.

In a 5-4 ruling in Hall v. Florida the court concluded that Florida’s rigid IQ threshold of 70 “disregards established medical practice” and creates the “unacceptable risk” that an inmate with intellectual disabilities might be executed, in violation of the Constitution.

“Our society does not consider this strict cutoff as proper or humane,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

“No legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with intellectual disability,” Kennedy wrote. “To impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being.”

It is interesting that Kennedy would refer to the petitioner’s inherent right of “dignity.” The term is not frequently used in American jurisprudence and the term is even more difficult to find in Supreme Court opinions.

In fact, in Atkins v. Virginia the decision that banned the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, the only reference to dignity is the reference to a passage in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s 1958 opinion in Trop v. Dulles, “The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.”

In “Dignity Rights: Courts, Constitutions, and the Worth of the Human Person,” Erin Daly, a professor at Widener University Law School, wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court’s first mention of dignity as an individual right is a fleeting reference in Skinner v. Oklahoma in 1942. In a 1945 dissent, Justice Frank Murphy wrote, “The right was his … because he was a human being. As such he was entitled to all the respect and fair treatment that befits the dignity of man.”

In Miranda v. Arizona the Supreme Court wrote of oppressive interrogations as “destructive of human dignity.” In Roper v. Simmons, the court outlawed the execution of juveniles. The Court wrote, “The basic concept of the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.” 

The reason the Supreme Court was forced to entertain another case dealing with intellectual disability resulted from the Court’s failure to outline a method for determining intellectual disability in the Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins. In Atkins the court left it to the states to define the parameters of who qualifies as mentally disabled for purpose of capital punishment.

Ultimately the question is whether a defendant’s mental deficiency is so significant that he is unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct. If so, his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and violate his inherent dignity as a human being.


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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