Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551

From Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

By a vote of 5-4 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roper v. Simmons that executing juveniles under the age of 18 violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

From the opinion of the Court by Justice Kennedy:

Capital punishment must be limited to those offenders who commit "a narrow category of the most serious crimes" and whose extreme culpability makes them "the most deserving of execution." Atkins, 536 U.S. at 319... Three general differences between juveniles under 18 and adults demonstrate that juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders. First, as any parent knows and as the scientific and sociological studies respondent and his amici cite tend to confirm, "[a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young. These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.". The second area of difference is that juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure. The third broad difference is that the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult. The personality traits of juveniles are more transitory, less fixed.

These differences render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders. The susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior means "their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult." Thompson, supra, at 835 (plurality opinion). 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.

Focus Questions

1. Do you agree with the Court's reasoning about why juveniles cannot be "classified among the worst offenders"? Why or why not?

2. Justice Kennedy refers to "scientific and social" studies. To what extent do you think such information should inform the "standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" and be relevant to a determination of whether the death penalty should apply? Why?

3. Elsewhere in this opinion, Justice Kennedy referred to the "overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty." To what extent do you think we should consider international opinion and the capital punishment practices of other countries when evaluating our own? Why?

4. The Court decided in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) that execution of mentally retarded persons was "cruel and unusual." Applying the "standards of decency" test, who else do you think should be exempt from execution?

5. Justice Scalia dissented in this opinion. One of the arguments he made was that the decision was antidemocratic and that the Court had usurped a role that belonged to the legislature. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?