Thursday, June 29, 2006

Supreme Court on the Insanity Defense

Although the most important case decided by the Supreme Court today had nothing in particular to do with disability law, the Court's other case, Clark v. Arizona, involved an important disability-related question. The case involves Arizona's extremely narrow insanity defense. The traditional M'Naghten rule, in effect in many jurisdictions, provides that an individual will be found not guilty by reason of insanity if s/he either didn't know what s/he was doing or didn't know that what s/he was doing was wrong. Arizona uses a truncated version of the M'Naghten test, under which the defendant can be found not guilty by reason of insanity only if s/he didn't know that what s/he was doing was wrong. The first M'Naghten prong -- that the defendant didn't know what s/he was doing -- is irrelevant. Moreover, the state makes that truncated insanity defense the only vehicle for presenting expert evidence of the defendant's mental disease; accordingly, such evidence cannot be used to negate the mens rea element of the offense.

In today's decision, the Court upheld the Arizona scheme by (what was basically) a 6-3 vote against a due process challenge. Justice Souter wrote the opinion for the Court. He relied on the states' broad constitutional latitude to define the insanity defense and on the possibility of juror confusion if mental disease evidence were relevant to mens rea in a way that it could not be relevant to the insanity defense. Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Scalia joined the Court's opinion in full, and Justice Breyer joined the Court's opinion in substantial part. Justice Kennedy dissented, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg.


Blogger Mary K. Day-Petrano said...

I am at a loss for this case result. Are our law schools failing the legal profession by failing to require a course in 'integration' of the laws? In other words, why did the interplay of Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the ADA's National uniformity requirement (42 U.SS.C. Sec. 12101(1)(1) & (2)) not enter into the analysis? It seems the States are required by the ADA to have a minimum floor of protection that does not deviate fom consistency from State to State, and if a state wants to offer MORE protection (42 U.S.C. Sec. 12201(b)) than it may do so.

This failure of overwhelming numbers of members of the Bars to consider how one law may have to be integrated with another, especially when it comes to the ADA, amazes me. It is one of the failures that result in much unnecessary discrimination and/or exclusion to continue to occur now 16 years after the ADA was enacted by Congress.

I cannot say how often I have heard Florida state court judges say Title II of the ADA does not apply in Florida's state courts "because that is a federal law and it only applies in federal courts, not here in state court."

When is this sad state of affairs going to change for the better for people with disabilities?

12:10 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

1. I think it is important to remember that whether or not the person at issue in this case was disabled was a disputed issue of fact, as well as law. The court found that he was not disabled (insane) under Arizona law. I lived in Flagstaff at the time of the murder and it occurred not far from where I resided. So I have followed this case very closely. I think that even if the SC had found for him, the evidence provided by the defense was not enough to establish he was insane (under either prong) and hence disabled. So I don't think the fact pattern in the case really qualifies it for a "disability case".

2. I have a philosophical issue with the whole line of insanity cases and its possible integration with the ADA. There is enough discrimination against people with mental disabilities as it is. I think that conflating insanity with typical mental diseases rebounds to the detriment of such people. Tell someone you suffer from depression and the common attitude remains that you are "wacko". People with ordinary mental disabilities do not need to be tagged with the label "insane".

3. There are a host of legal issues that make integration far from easy. I don't see anything in legislative history of the act that intended it to get caught up in the death penalty area. If a person is insane, are they really an individual with a disability under the ADA? Even if it is conceded that they are covered under the ADA, if someone doesn't know what they are doing (they meet the first prong) then it seems reasonable to argue that any accommodation given to such a person by its very definition represents a fundamental alteration in a program or service. Insanity is not a garden variety disability. It is a disability so severe that the individual either doesn't know what they are doing or doesn't know right from wrong.

The ADA has enough haters as it is. We do not need the ADA being extended into every nook and cranny of American life just to see what kind of neat results someone might get. Some lawyers might think its fun but the net result in the long-term will be to get Congress to repeal the ADA.

10:26 PM  

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