Wednesday, March 02, 2005
Editorial: Justice tempered
The high court acted wisely in barring juvenile executions, a practice that can no longer be justified based on growing knowledge.
From the RoundTable blog
Read the latest entries
And Virginia, one of only 19 states that allows the practice, is spared making the politically contentious decision to bring it to an end. Lawmakers delayed acting this session in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision. Tuesday, the court took the matter out of the states' hands, ruling - correctly - that executing killers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments.
The narrowness of the 5-4 decision indicates once again the delicate balance between the high court's liberals and conservatives. Moderates cast deciding votes to form a bare majority leaning first one way, then the other.
That is the right balance in a nation similarly divided, which underscores the critical nature of any appointment President Bush may make to the high court. Bush needs to base his choice not on political ideology but on a prospective justice's intellectual ability and respect for court precedent.
A moderate on the current court, Justice Anthony Kennedy, wrote Tuesday's majority opinion. It builds on an earlier ban on the death penalty for killers 15 or younger and on the court's 2002 ruling that bars the execution of the mentally retarded.
In all cases, the court decided that people who are not able to make adult judgments should be held less culpable than average criminals for their actions. Thus, the state should not be allowed to exact the ultimate penalty of death, even for heinous crimes.
A just society must take diminished ability into account.
Growing scientific evidence indicates that 16- and 17-year-olds, though they may appear full grown, do not have the wisdom of adults. That part of the brain that governs judgment and impulse control simply does not develop fully till age 20 or 21.
Nothing in the court rulings gives leave to juveniles or the mentally retarded to commit crimes without fear of punishment. The court only acknowledges the reality of diminished capacity and tempers justice with a measure of mercy.
In dissenting, Justice Antonin Scalia disputed the majority view that juvenile executions are declining, which would indicate a growing consensus against the practice.
But Virginia was waiting for the high court to act. A more humane standard is now the law of the land.