Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly


Aimee Logan


The 2003 United States Supreme Court decision Atkins v. Virginia provides a unique opportunity to discuss how the Court integrates science into its constitutional philosophy. In Atkins, a majority of the Court concluded that executing criminals with mental retardation violates the Eighth Amendments prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Psychologists, psychiatrists and others in the scientific community have studied mental retardation for some time. However, the tests they use, and the criteria they look at, do not necessarily translate to the criminal justice system. Thus, in order to give legal significance to mental retardation, the Supreme Court must operationally define it.

While traditionally the Court has left matters of criminal procedure to the states, in this area where science and the law necessarily meet, the Court must provide at least baseline procedural requirements to enable the states to comply with their constitutional mandate to exempt individuals with mental retardation from the death penalty.