WASHINGTON—A bitterly divided Supreme Court banned executions for juvenile killers Tuesday, overturning 72 death sentences in 12 states and continuing the dramatic trend of high-court decisions that have limited the scope of capital punishment in this country.
In an impassioned 5-4 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy said a growing national consensus about the immaturity of youth and America's position as the world's sole remaining juvenile executioner led to a simple conclusion: The practice violates the Constitution's protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Twenty-two juvenile killers have been executed since the high court re-approved the death penalty in 1973. In all, 19 states permit the execution of minors.
"It is fair to say that the United States now stands alone in a world that has turned its face against the juvenile death penalty," Kennedy wrote. "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest."
Kennedy's opinion was joined by justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
But it drew sharp protest from Justice Antonin Scalia, who said the majority had made a "mockery" of the court's adherence to tradition and precedent. Just 15 years ago, the justices banned executions of juveniles under the age of 16, but allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to face ultimate punishment.
"The court reaches this implausible result by purporting to advert, not to the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment, but to evolving standards of decency," Scalia said. "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 ..."
Scalia pointed out that in 1989, 14 of the nation's 38 states allowing the death penalty exempted defendants under the age of 18, but only four more states have adopted such bans since then.
"Words have no meaning if the views of less than 50 percent of death-penalty states can constitute a national consensus," he wrote.
Scalia's dissent was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dissented separately, saying the majority offered no proof that a national consensus exists.
Tuesday's ruling was greeted with hearty praise from the nation's anti-death-penalty organizations and from such diverse groups as the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the European Union. All had filed briefs in support of Christopher Simmons, a Missouri inmate who, at age 17, kidnapped a woman from her home, bound her to a chair and tossed her off a bridge into a river.
Simmons should be punished, the groups all agreed, but his age at the time of the crime robbed him of the capacity for reason—and therefore the culpability.
"We are thrilled about the decision," said Leonard Rubenstein, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. "It provides a legal grounding for what scientists have shown: that kids are different from adults. Brains of young people are underdeveloped, particularly in the areas that dictate reason, impulse control and decision-making."
Indeed, Kennedy relied heavily on volumes of research submitted to the court about the differences between adolescent and adult minds.
Young people "lack maturity," are "more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences" and have characters that are "not as well formed as that of an adult," Kennedy wrote.
His opinion was peppered with references to psychological and medical studies about young minds, and at one point he affirmed an assertion with the phrase "as any parent knows."
But Charles Hobson, an attorney with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which has opposed many court-imposed death-penalty reforms, said the decision was yet another example of judges overstepping their roles.
"The question is: Who determines that a law is reprehensible? Is it the people or five lawyers who could get appointed to the court?" Hobson asked. "Why should five people get to judge morality for the entire country?"
Without question, Tuesday's ruling is a significant turn—for the death penalty and the court.
Already, the justices have outlawed executions of the mentally retarded, heightened requirements for lawyers who represent defendants facing death sentences, required that juries, not judges, decide who gets the death penalty and decried such practices as racial jury-stacking in capital cases.
That's built formidable momentum for death-penalty opponents in the past half-decade or so.
The ruling adds yet another categorical exemption to the list of death-penalty untouchables, moving the nation away from routine executions.
"I think this is a victory for the American people," said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "The public will be very receptive, and the community around the world will welcome this decision."
For the court, the ruling also carries important implications.
Overturning precedent is rare at the high court, and switching directions in just 15 years is extremely unusual. It's also rare to see the justices pass on an opportunity to rebuke a lower court that's redefined Supreme Court precedent.
In Simmons' case, the Missouri Supreme Court took the lead in declaring juvenile executions a violation of the federal Constitution. Kennedy didn't address that in his majority opinion, but Scalia took pointed issue with it.
Allowing lower courts to ignore high-court precedent "destroys stability and makes our case law an unreliable basis for the designing of laws by citizens and their representatives," Scalia wrote. "The result will be to crown arbitrariness with chaos."
The ruling also touched on international law and opinion, which also has become the source of an increasingly sharp divide on the court.
Kennedy, along with Breyer, Ginsburg and O'Connor, has repeatedly acknowledged that standards of decency and morality abroad should have some effect on American law.
"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 ... simply underscores the centrality of those same rights within our own heritage of freedom," Kennedy wrote in Tuesday's ruling.
But Scalia opposed such thinking.
"What these foreign sources `affirm,' rather than repudiate, is the Justices' own notion of how the world ought to be, and their diktat that it shall be so henceforth in America," Scalia wrote.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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