Stanford v. Kentucky

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492 U.S. 361 (1989), argued 27 Mar. 1989, decided 26 June 1989 by vote of 5 to 4; Scalia for the Court, joined in whole by Rehnquist, White, and Kennedy and in part by O’Connor, who concurred in the judgment and concurred in part in the opinion; Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens in dissent. Stanford rejected the contention that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments forbids the execution of those who were juveniles when they committed the crimes for which they were convicted. The Court held that such a practice was not one of “those modes of punishment that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time that the Bill of Rights was adopted” (p. 361) and that it did not violate the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” (p. 369). By implication, however, the Court seemed to indicate that it would be unconstitutional for the state to impose the death penalty on a person who was under sixteen at the time of his or her offense.

The Court rejected the first prong of the two-part test outright, since the common law at the time of the Bill of Rights set the minimum age for the application of capital punishment in theory at seven and in practice at fourteen. The Court found that at least 281 offenders under the age of eighteen, including at least 126 under the age of seventeen, had been executed in the United States.

The Court's rejection of the second argument—that evolving standards of decency were violated—was more involved. Considering the laws of the several states, both as enacted and as applied, Justice Antonin Scalia found that a majority of states allow capital punishment for those above the age of sixteen and rejected as irrelevant the defendants’ contention that prosecutors rarely seek and juries rarely apply the death penalty to juveniles.

In dissent, Justice William J. Brennan argued that the evidence from the laws and practices of the states, properly interpreted, suggests that the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles violates “contemporary standards of decency” (p. 388).

William Lasser

Subjects: Law.

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