WASHINGTON, DC—In a landmark 8-1 decision, an uncharacteristically subdued Supreme Court ruled "it depends" in the case of Panetti v. Quarterman, leaving the issue of executing the mentally ill completely open-ended.
The entirely indeterminate ruling is a first for the high court.
The case, which challenged the extent to which the Eighth Amendment permits the execution of a mentally ill death row inmate who has a factual awareness of the reason for his punishment but does not comprehend its retributive nature, was described in Chief Justice John Roberts' majority opinion as being "way too tough to call."
"There were far too many variables to consider," Roberts wrote. "The death penalty is touchy enough without having to worry about how it relates to the mentally ill. This really seems like one of those things that should be decided on a case by case basis by the people involved, not by us."
The opinion further stated that the court was "intimidated" by the extreme pressure brought on by its eminent position, arguing that it would have been much easier for the justices to deliver a firm, definitive ruling had they not been "hyper-aware" that constitutional scholars, trial lawyers, and lower-court judges would study and discuss their decision for generations to come.
"If it were just us sitting around having a few beers and shooting the breeze, it would have been, like, yeah, sure, execute the mentally ill, they should have known what they had coming to them that far into the legal process," Justice Clarence Thomas said. "But we don't want to set some huge precedent or something. So how about this: How about if mentally ill people just stop killing people altogether? That would certainly make our jobs a whole lot easier."
A source close to one of the associate justices said the deliberations were marked not only by vacillation and ambivalence, but also by a sense of frustration.
"Now Brown v. Board of Education—that was a no-brainer," said Justice Stephen Breyer, referring to the landmark school-desegregation case. "I wish I could have been on the Supreme Court then. But now I have to decide whether or not a convicted killer who 'has a delusional belief as to why the state is executing him, and thus does not appreciate that his execution is intended to seek retribution for his capital crime' can be executed? Forget it."
"We're just nine justices—we don't have all the answers to all the country's legal problems," Breyer added.
The oral arguments by opposing attorneys Keith S. Hampton and Gena B. Bunn, though impressive, reportedly only made matters worse.
"Both attorneys were super smart and well prepared and made a lot of really good points," Justice Samuel Alito said. "When Mr. Hampton was presenting his case, I was thinking, 'Yeah, this is totally right,' and I was prepared to side with him. But then Ms. Bunn got up and sounded just as convincing, but argued the exact opposite point. It's like, who do you believe?"
Hundreds of "seriously legal-looking" documents such as amicus briefs and depositions from mental health experts only served to further confuse members of the high court.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who was sympathetic toward the respondent's position before the proceedings began, concluded that since everyone was tired, not thinking clearly, and "just wanted to get the whole thing over with," the "it depends" verdict was "probably the best, most thoughtful resolution at which [the Supreme Court] could have arrived."
Though members of Congress and the Bush administration have expressed concern with the court's unprecedented semi-decision, justices aren't ruling out the possibility of other types of indecisive rulings in the future, such as "can't be too sure," "you never know," and "not our place to say."
"A lot of these cases are really hard, and it's comforting to know that we now have a little wiggle room," said Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest and longest-serving current member of the high court. "Take Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. v. Federal Election Commission. Maybe issue ads should be able to run less than 60 days before a public official is up for reelection, if the issue is important enough. Maybe the official should be forced to comment on the matter so his constituents know where he stands. 'It depends' would work really well in that case."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the lone dissenting opinion, in which she stated that she knew the correct decision was either yes or no, but couldn't say which one it should be.