536 U.S. 304 (2002), argued 20 Feb. 2002, decided 20 June 2002 by vote of 6 to 3; Stevens for the Court, O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer concurring, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas in dissent. The issue before the Court was whether the execution of mentally retarded criminals is “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Directly overturning Penry v. Lynaugh (1989), the Court held that such executions violate the Constitution. Relying primarily on the number of state legislatures that had enacted statutes prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded criminals and the consistent direction of such legislation since the Court's decision in Penry, the Court decided that the execution of mentally retarded criminals violated contemporary standards of decency. In addition to violating evolving standards of decency, the Court found that the execution of mentally retarded criminals constituted excessive punishment because it does not advance the deterrent and retributive purposes of the death penalty. The Court also determined that such executions increase the risk that death will be imposed in spite of factors that may call for a less severe penalty. In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia accused the Court of basing its opinion on the personal views of its members rather than on a proper interpretation of the Eighth Amendment or an accurate assessment of current social attitudes. In a separate dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist took the Court to task for consulting foreign laws, the views of professional and religious organizations, and opinion polls, in its determination of what is a publicly acceptable punishment. Opponents of capital punishment have interpreted Atkins as signaling a decline in the Court's support for the death penalty, but others have contended that the Court merely acted to reduce the likelihood of bad convictions so as to assure the future of the death penalty in the United States.
Jennifer L. Culbert