How Hall V. Florida Transforms the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Evolving Standards of Decency Analysis

16 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2016

See all articles by Bidish Sarma

Bidish Sarma

University of California, Berkeley School of Law; The Justice Center's Capital Appeals Project

Date Written: 2014


Contrary to what many commentators have suggested about Hall v. Florida, the case’s constitutional legacy will not be its modest step to protect criminal defendants with intellectual disabilities. Rather, what will stand out years from now is how Hall quietly but fundamentally transformed both the understanding of when it is appropriate for the U.S. Supreme Court to search for a national consensus on an issue under the Eighth Amendment and how the Court determines whether a consensus exists.

The Court’s recent decision in Hall will help ensure that states meaningfully enforce the protection the Court originally set forth in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that individuals with intellectual disabilities cannot be executed. The immediate responses to the Hall decision characterized it primarily as a “small but meaningful step” to “chip away at the death penalty.” But the majority opinion’s reliance on the views and practices of medical experts and psychiatric professionals has overshadowed other important doctrinal developments. This Essay represents an early effort to identify those developments and explore their implications.

This Essay contains three Parts. After describing the Court’s narrow holding briefly in Part I, this Essay explores Hall’s two most remarkable aspects. Part II explicates how the Supreme Court’s decision to answer the question Hall presented by engaging in the Eighth Amendment national consensus analysis is doctrinally surprising and significant. Part III examines how the Court’s approach to conducting that consensus analysis deepens the Court’s commitment to an increasingly sophisticated method. This Essay takes the position that the Court’s deployment of its consensus-detecting apparatus is not only unexpected in the Hall context but is also striking because it could implicate a broad range of issues related to constitutional claims against harsh punishments like the death penalty. And this Essay further observes that the manner in which the Hall Court determined that a national consensus existed reflects an evolving and more nuanced Eighth Amendment approach that the Court continues to refine. Ultimately, this Essay predicts that Hall’s long-term significance will reach far beyond its narrow yet important holding.

Keywords: Supreme Court, Eighth Amendment, National Consensus, Hall v. Florida

JEL Classification: K14, K41

Suggested Citation

Sarma, Bidish, How Hall V. Florida Transforms the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Evolving Standards of Decency Analysis (2014). UCLA Law Review, Vol. 62, No. Discourse, 2014. Available at SSRN:

Bidish Sarma (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley School of Law ( email )

391 Simon Hall
UC Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

The Justice Center's Capital Appeals Project ( email )

636 Baronne St.
New Orleans, LA 70113
United States

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