“Court Watching” will be a regular series on Reflections. The purpose of these essays is to inform the general public on the important constitutional questions being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in its current term. Often, journalistic reporting on the Court focuses heavily, or even exclusively on the practical outcomes of the cases before the Court. We’re told whether a decision is a “pro-Trump” or “anti-Trump” decision, and what immediate impact the decision may have, but the legal and constitutional questions the court has wrestled with are understated, to say the least. Often, stories about a decision of the Court fail to even mention the name of the case! This continuing series of essays will attempt to explain, in layman’s terms, the constitutional issues the Supreme Court is dealing with: What part of the Constitution is being debated? What have previous court cases said about the issue? What are the arguments on both sides? Hopefully, this will lead to a greater understanding of current constitutional debates, and respect for differing views of governmental powers and constitutional rights.
by John Grove
Madison v. Alabama
Vernon Madison was, after several trials, convicted of shooting and killing a police officer in 1985. The judge in the final trial overruled a jury’s recommendation and imposed the death penalty on Madison in 1994. While on death row, Madison has suffered several strokes and has significantly diminished mental capacity.
The Constitutional Question:
The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment forbids the imposition of “cruel and unusual punishments.” Determining what constitutes “cruel and unusual,” however, has been a difficult task. As far back as 1958, in Trop v. Dulles, the Supreme Court has held that the meaning of “cruel and unusual” should be derived from the “evolving standards of decency which mark the progress of an evolving society,” rather than from the meaning those words held at the time of the Amendment’s ratification. Creating firm standards to match that abstract (and, critics might argue, amorphous) language, however, has often been a difficult task for the Court.
For this case, the standard at question comes from two important cases: Ford v. Wainwright (1986) and Panetti v. Quarterman (2007). In these cases, the Court determined that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to execute someone who was “insane” or had delusions at the time of execution. Both sides in Madison accept the standard which the latter of these two cases set forward: If a person does not have a “rational understanding of the State’s reason for his execution,” that person cannot be executed. They differ, however, on whether someone who has dementia and cannot remember his crime, yet can understand what the state claims he did and can understand why he is being executed has such a “rational understanding.”
It is important to note that this case is not about the execution of a person who had dementia at the time of the crime. Mr. Madison did not. Rather, it is about whether it is cruel and unusual to execute someone who, because of dementia, cannot remember the crime for which he is being executed.
Interestingly, both sides at oral argument agreed that vascular dementia could, indeed, trigger the protections outlined in Ford and Panetti, even though those two cases limited themselves to cases of insanity and delusions. The two sides differed, however, on whether Madison’s dementia actually prevented a rational understanding of his crime and his punishment. Madison’s attorneys argued that his condition meets the standard established by Panetti. Namely, that Madison’s dementia makes it difficult for him to orient himself and fully understand the circumstances he is in. Like an Alzheimer’s patient, he may understand something one day, and not understand it the next. They pointed to many everyday aspects of his prison life, such as his inability to remember that he has a toilet in his cell, as evidence that he is simply incapable of understanding his circumstances.
The state of Alabama, on the other hand, argued that Madison’s condition does not prevent him from understanding the rationale for his punishment. They cited medical testimony that Madison understood that he was convicted of shooting a police officer, and that his execution was because of that action. Further, the state argued that at least one element of Madison’s case – the lack of memory of the crime – is an unworkable standard, as there is no way for courts to know for certain whether a defendant has actually forgotten a crime.
What this case seems to boil down to is whether it is cruel and unusual to execute someone who can understand the purpose of his sentence and its consequences, but who cannot, perhaps, hold on to that information and fully grasp the situation he is in. Given the disagreements over Madison’s actual mental abilities, it is also possible that the Court may send the case back down to lower courts to determine whether Madison actually is incompetent to be executed, given the agreement that the Panetti standard goes beyond insanity and delusions, and does indeed apply to people with dementia.
Oral arguments for this case were heard in October, so a decision is expected soon. As will be the case with all of our “Court Watching” essays, when the Court hands down its decision, we will write an update and explain the Court’s reasoning. Stay tuned!