Roper v. Simmons: Minor Execution (03/01/2005)

Roper v. Simmons

Does the execution of minors violate the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” found in the Eighth Amendment and applied to the states through the incorporation doctrine of the 14th Amendment?

Argued: 10/13/2004

Decision Date: 03/01/2005

Decision Record: 5-4; yes

Justices in Favor: John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer

Justices Dissenting: William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas

Effect of the Decision

The court ruled that the execution of minors is considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, on the side of Roper, attorney James R. Layton argued, “Though bound by Stanford v. Kentucky, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected both its holding and its rationale.

This Court should stay the course it set in Stanford, leaving in the hands of legislators a determination as to the precise minimum age for capital punishment within the realm of Thompson v. Oklahoma, and leaving to jurors responsibility for determining the culpability of individual defendants above that minimum age.

The Missouri court justified its departure from Stanford on Atkins v. Virginia, but the result it reached is quite different from the result in Stanford.

In that… excuse me… in Atkins.

In that case, the Court was addressing mental ability, itself a component of culpability.

The Court announced a principle based on that characteristic, that is, that the mentally retarded are not to be eligible for capital punishment, but then it left to the States the determination of the standard and the means of implementing that principle.

The Missouri Supreme Court, by contrast, jumped beyond the question of maturity, which is an element of culpability analysis, to the arbitrary distinction of age.

It drew a line based purely on age, which is necessarily over-inclusive, and then it gave that line constitutional status, thus depriving legislators and juries of the ability to evaluate the maturity of 17-year-old defenders.”


In the opposition, on the side of Simmons, attorney Seth P. Waxman argued, “Everyone agrees that there is some age below which juveniles can’t be subjected to the death penalty.

The question here is where our society’s evolving standards of decency now draw that line.

15 years ago, this Court found insufficient evidence to justify a bright line at 18, but since Stanford, a consensus has evolved and new scientific evidence has emerged, and these developments change the constitutional calculus for much the same reasons the Court found compelling in Atkins.

We’re talking not only about the whole variety of ways in which our society has concluded that 18 is the bright line between childhood and adulthood and that 18 is the line below which we preserve… presume immaturity.

But the line with respect to executions, the trend is very robust and it is very deep.”


On the side of the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the court. He wrote, “Over time, from one generation to the next, the Constitution has come to earn the high respect and even, as Madison dared to hope, the veneration of the American people. See The Federalist No. 49, p. 314 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961). The document sets forth, and rests upon, innovative principles original to the American experience, such as federalism; a proven balance in political mechanisms through separation of powers; specific guarantees for the accused in criminal cases; and broad provisions to secure individual freedom and preserve human dignity. These doctrines and guarantees are central to the American experience and remain essential to our present-day self-definition and national identity. Not the least of the reasons we honor the Constitution, then, is because we know it to be our own. 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.

    The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed. The judgment of the Missouri Supreme Court setting aside the sentence of death imposed upon Christopher Simmons is affirmed.”

In opposition, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “Reasonable minds can differ as to the minimum age at which commission of a serious crime should expose the defendant to the death penalty, if at all. Many jurisdictions have abolished capital punishment altogether, while many others have determined that even the most heinous crime, if committed before the age of 18, should not be punishable by death. Indeed, were my office that of a legislator, rather than a judge, then I, too, would be inclined to support legislation setting a minimum age of 18 in this context. But a significant number of States, including Missouri, have decided to make the death penalty potentially available for 17-year-old capital murderers such as respondent. Without a clearer showing that a genuine national consensus forbids the execution of such offenders, this Court should not substitute its own “inevitably subjective judgment” on how best to resolve this difficult moral question for the judgments of the Nation’s democratically elected legislatures. See Thompsonsupra, at 854 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment). I respectfully dissent.”

Also in opposition, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “However sound philosophically, this is no way to run a legal system. We must disregard the new reality that, to the extent our Eighth Amendment decisions constitute something more than a show of hands on the current Justices’ current personal views about penology, they purport to be nothing more than a snapshot of American public opinion at a particular point in time (with the timeframes now shortened to a mere 15 years). We must treat these decisions just as though they represented real law, real prescriptions democratically adopted by the American people, as conclusively (rather than sequentially) construed by this Court. Allowing lower courts to reinterpret the Eighth Amendment whenever they decide enough time has passed for a new snapshot leaves this Court’s decisions without any force–especially since the “evolution” of our Eighth Amendment is no longer determined by objective criteria. To allow lower courts to behave as we do, “updating” the Eighth Amendmentas 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.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I disagree with the majority opinion and agree with the minority. Just because one is a minor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for the crimes they commit that may result or deserve a death penalty. By letting them off the hook for a death penalty, this gives minors a little more leniency to do what they want, knowing they won’t lose their life.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *