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US Supreme Court Decision in Hall v. Florida Reaffirms Understanding of Intellectual Disability

May 27, 2014 [Washington, DC]

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 5 to 4 majority ruling that provides greater guidance to states in implementing a landmark case on the death penalty and people with intellectual disability. In the 2002 case now commonly known as the Atkins decision, the Court held that the execution of people with intellectual disability (although the term used at the time was mental retardation) was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

While the Atkins decision exempted people with intellectual disability from the death penalty, states were left some discretion in defining the condition in their statutes. Some states defined the condition in a manner inconsistent with clinical standards, in particular, by relying solely on an IQ test score without considering the statistical range of IQ test scores and failing to consider other evidence of the condition.

Today’s majority opinion in Hall v. Florida, authored by Justice Kennedy, holds that “an individual’s intellectual functioning cannot be reduced to a single numerical score,” and that a law that rigidly defines the condition based only on an IQ score “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” Additionally, the Court acknowledged “intellectual disability” as the contemporary term for the condition.

“The Hall ruling affirms the Court’s direction in Atkins, which held that all defendants with intellectual disability are exempted from the death penalty, and reminds us that no state has the option of adopting a definition that recognizes only some defendants with intellectual disability as protected by the Eighth Amendment,” said Margaret Nygren, Executive Director of AAIDD. 


See a selection of AAIDD’s Amicus Curiae briefs, including the one submitted in the Hall v. Florida case decided today, at

See the majority and minority options on this case at

Founded in 1876, AAIDD is the oldest professional association concerned with intellectual and developmental disabilities. AAIDD advocates for the equality, dignity, and human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and for their full inclusion and participation in society. Learn more about the organization at

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