Supreme Court Rejects Florida's IQ Limit For Executions: 3 Questions That Arise From The Ruling

The landscape of the American death penalty shifted Tuesday when the Supreme Court ruled against Florida's IQ threshold — in other words, Florida's existing standard that any death row inmate testing at or above an IQ of 70 is able to be executed. By a 5-4 majority, with routine swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy siding with the court's liberal wing, the court ruled that Florida's standard is a violation of Constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. As Kennedy himself said: "Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number."

This is yet another recent instance of a high-profile, news-making event regarding capital punishment, a topic which has seized a fair share of national attention following the harrowing, botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in late April. Whether you believe it's possible to perform executions safely and humanely, or you're opposed to the idea wholesale, it's hard to deny the impact that the calamitous failing of Lockett's execution had on the public discourse.

So too will Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling have a big impact, and raise some crucial questions — not just about the efficacy and morality of the death penalty, but the way the court is likely to think about such cases going forward. Here are three such examples...

1. What Impact Will This Have Beyond Florida?

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By finding Florida's IQ standards unconstitutional, the Supreme Court also struck down similar measure in eight other states — Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, all of which had designated the 70 IQ threshold as a "bright-line cutoff," according to Kennedy.

But in the opinion of Kennedy, using that hard and fast a standard represents a misunderstanding of the nature both of intellectual disabilities, but also of IQ tests, which aren't laser-precise assessments of a person's mental faculties. In short, the ruling means those states which turned to this answer will now have to adopt new methods.

2. How Does This Change The Death Penalty Process?

Prior to the ruling, Florida was using the 70 IQ cutoff as an end-all be-all determination of whether an inmate was mentally fit to be executed. The system was extremely rigid and unforgiving about that number — at the time an IQ of 70 or higher was established, any inquiries as to the inmate's mental state were put to rest.

Now, there's a number of new considerations that must come into play. First, and simplest, margin of error must be taken into account when assessing an IQ score. But it can't be the sole consideration, either. Inmates will now be able to pursue a second means to demonstrate an intellectual disability — presenting a detailed assessment of their history, environments, and the extent of their adaptability to everyday life.

It also means that Freddie Lee Hall, the man whose case brought about this ruling, will be further assessed. Hall has taken nine IQ tests over the course of 40 years, averaging out to 72.66.

3. Where Does Justice Kennedy Stand on the Death Penalty itself?

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It's the question central to any future Supreme Court rulings on capital punishment, or really any major issue — how does Kennedy feel about it? That's because the other eight votes of America's ostensibly non-political high court basically always side with each other, with the liberal bloc of Kagan, Sotormayor, Breyer and Ginsburg opposed by conservatives Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalia.

It's a peculiar phenomenon, the largely reliable voting habits of the other eight effectively leaving the country's judicial fate in Kennedy's hands. And as such, any future death penalty cases will no doubt hinge on his perspective. There's some reason for optimism on that front, at least insofar as reforming the system is concerned. He's ruled in the past that it's unconstitutional to execute minors or the mentally ill, and in Kennedy v. Louisiana (different Kennedy) he wrote in a majority opinion:

... the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim's life was not taken.

He did not, however, decide to lend his voice to the dissent on Kansas v. Marsh despite siding with it, a dissent which went further in criticizing the "soundness" of the entire institution of capital punishment.