KC Johnson

April 16: Youth & Public Policy during the Bush Years

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

ROPER, SUPERINTENDENT, POTOSI CORRECTIONAL CENTER v. SIMMONS

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MISSOURI


No. 03—633.Argued October 13, 2004–Decided March 1, 2005

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This case requires us to address, for the second time in a decade and a half, whether it is permissible under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States to execute a juvenile offender who was older than 15 but younger than 18 when he committed a capital crime…

At the age of 17, when he was still a junior in high school, Christopher Simmons, the respondent here, committed murder. About nine months later, after he had turned 18, he was tried and sentenced to death. There is little doubt that Simmons was the instigator of the crime. Before its commission Simmons said he wanted to murder someone. In chilling, callous terms he talked about his plan, discussing it for the most part with two friends, Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer, then aged 15 and 16 respectively. Simmons proposed to commit burglary and murder by breaking and entering, tying up a victim, and throwing the victim off a bridge. Simmons assured his friends they could “get away with it” because they were minors…

    During closing arguments, both the prosecutor and defense counsel addressed Simmons’ age, which the trial judge had instructed the jurors they could consider as a mitigating factor. Defense counsel reminded the jurors that juveniles of Simmons’ age cannot drink, serve on juries, or even see certain movies, because “the legislatures have wisely decided that individuals of a certain age aren’t responsible enough.” Defense counsel argued that Simmons’ age should make “a huge difference to [the jurors] in deciding just exactly what sort of punishment to make.” In rebuttal, the prosecutor gave the following response: “Age, he says. Think about age. Seventeen years old. Isn’t that scary? Doesn’t that scare you? Mitigating? Quite the contrary I submit. Quite the contrary.”…

    The prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments,” like other expansive language in the Constitution, must be interpreted according to its text, by considering history, tradition, and precedent, and with due regard for its purpose and function in the constitutional design. To implement this framework we have established the propriety and affirmed the necessity of referring to “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…We then must determine, in the exercise of our own independent judgment, whether the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for juveniles…

A majority of States have rejected the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders under 18, and we now hold this is required by the Eighth Amendment

The susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior means “their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.” Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate surroundings mean juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment. See Stanford, 492 U.S., at 395 (Brennan, J., dissenting). The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed…

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…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.

 Justice Scalia, with whom The Chief Justice and Justice Thomas join, dissenting.

In urging approval of a constitution that gave life-tenured judges the power to nullify laws enacted by the people’s representatives, Alexander Hamilton assured the citizens of New York that there was little risk in this, since “[t]he judiciary … ha[s] neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment.” The Federalist No. 78 But Hamilton had in mind a traditional judiciary, “bound down by strict rules and precedents which serve to define and point out their duty in every particular case that comes before them.” Id., at 471. Bound down, indeed. What a mockery today’s opinion makes of Hamilton’s expectation, announcing the Court’s conclusion that the meaning of our Constitution has changed over the past 15 years–not, mind you, that this Court’s decision 15 years ago was wrong, but that the Constitution has changed. The Court reaches this implausible result by purporting to advert, not to the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment, but to “the evolving standards of decency,”ante, at 6 (internal quotation marks omitted), of our national society. It then finds, on the flimsiest of grounds, that a national consensus which could not be perceived in our people’s laws barely 15 years ago now solidly exists. Worse still, the Court says in so many words that what our people’s laws say about the issue does not, in the last analysis, matter: “[I]n the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.” The Court thus proclaims itself sole arbiter of our Nation’s moral standards–and in the course of discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislatures. Because I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five Members of this Court and like-minded foreigners, I dissent…

Today’s opinion provides a perfect example of why judges are ill equipped to make the type of legislative judgments the Court insists on making here. To support its opinion that States should be prohibited from imposing the death penalty on anyone who committed murder before age 18, the Court looks to scientific and sociological studies, picking and choosing those that support its position. It never explains why those particular studies are methodologically sound; none was ever entered into evidence or tested in an adversarial proceeding…

Though the views of our own citizens are essentially irrelevant to the Court’s decision today, the views of other countries and the so-called international community take center stage… More fundamentally, however, the basic premise of the Court’s argument–that American law should conform to the laws of the rest of the world–ought to be rejected out of hand…The Court should either profess its willingness to reconsider all these matters in light of the views of foreigners, or else it should cease putting forth foreigners’ views as part of the reasoned basis of its decisions. To invoke alien law when it agrees with one’s own thinking, and ignore it otherwise, is not reasoned decisionmaking, but sophistry…

To allow lower courts to behave as we do, “updating” the Eighth Amendment as needed, destroys stability and makes our case law an unreliable basis for the designing of laws by citizens and their representatives, and for action by public officials. The result will be to crown arbitrariness with chaos.

—————————————————————–

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

ALBERTO R. GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL,PETITIONER

05–380    v.

LEROY CARHART et al.

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit


[April 18, 2007]

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases require us to consider the validity of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 (Act),a federal statute regulating abortion procedures. In recitations preceding its operative provisions the Act refers to the Court’s opinion in Stenberg v. Carhart530 U. S. 914 (2000) , which also addressed the subject of abortion procedures used in the later stages of pregnancy. Compared to the state statute at issue in Stenberg, the Act is more specific concerning the instances to which it applies and in this respect more precise in its coverage. We conclude the Act should be sustained against the objections lodged by the broad, facial attack brought against it…

Whatever one’s views concerning the Casey joint opinion, it is evident a premise central to its conclusion—that the government has a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life—would be repudiated were the Court now to affirm the judgments of the Courts of Appeals [and overturn the law]…

The Act’s purposes are set forth in recitals preceding its operative provisions. A description of the prohibited abortion procedure demonstrates the rationale for the congressional enactment. The Act proscribes a method of abortion in which a fetus is killed just inches before completion of the birth process. Congress stated as follows: “Implicitly approving such a brutal and inhumane procedure by choosing not to prohibit it will further coarsen society to the humanity of not only newborns, but all vulnerable and innocent human life, making it increasingly difficult to protect such life.” The Act expresses respect for the dignity of human life…

The Act’s ban on abortions that involve partial delivery of a living fetus furthers the Government’s objectives. No one would dispute that, for many, D&E is a procedure itself laden with the power to devalue human life. Congress could nonetheless conclude that the type of abortion proscribed by the Act requires specific regulation because it implicates additional ethical and moral concerns that justify a special prohibition…

Justice Ginsburg, with whom Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, and Justice Breyer join, dissenting.

    In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey505 U. S. 833844 (1992) , the Court declared that “[l]iberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt.” There was, the Court said, an “imperative” need to dispel doubt as to “the meaning and reach” of the Court’s 7-to-2 judgment, rendered nearly two decades earlier in Roe v. Wade410 U. S. 113 (1973) . 505 U. S., at 845. Responsive to that need, the Court endeavored to provide secure guidance to “[s]tate and federal courts as well as legislatures throughout the Union,” by defining “the rights of the woman and the legitimate authority of the State respecting the termination of pregnancies by abortion procedures.” Ibid.

Taking care to speak plainly, the Casey Court restated and reaffirmed Roe’s essential holding. 505 U. S., at 845–846. First, the Court addressed the type of abortion regulation permissible prior to fetal viability. It recognized “the right of the woman to choose to have an abortion before viability and to obtain it without undue interference from the State.” Id., at 846. Second, the Court acknowledged “the State’s power to restrict abortions after fetal viability, if the law contains exceptions for pregnancies which endanger the woman’s life or health.” Ibid. (emphasis added). Third, the Court confirmed that “the State has legitimate interests from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus that may become a child.” Ibid. (emphasis added).

In reaffirming Roe,the Casey Court described the centrality of “the decision whether to bear . . . a child,” to a woman’s “dignity and autonomy,” her “personhood” and “destiny,” her “conception of . . . her place in society.” 505 U. S., at 851–852. Of signal importance here, the Casey Court stated with unmistakable clarity that state regulation of access to abortion procedures, even after viability, must protect “the health of the woman.” Id., at 846.

Seven years ago, in Stenberg v. Carhart,  the Court invalidated a Nebraska statute criminalizing the performance of a medical procedure that, in the political arena, has been dubbed “partial-birth abortion.” With fidelity to the RoeCasey line of precedent, the Court held the Nebraska statute unconstitutional in part because it lacked the requisite protection for the preservation of a woman’s health.

Today’s decision is alarming. It refuses to take Casey and Stenberg seriously. It tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). It blurs the line, firmly drawn in Casey,between previability and postviability abortions. And, for the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman’s health.

I dissent from the Court’s disposition. Retreating from prior rulings that abortion restrictions cannot be imposed absent an exception safeguarding a woman’s health, the Court upholds an Act that surely would not survive under the close scrutiny that previously attended state-decreed limitations on a woman’s reproductive choices.

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