University Wire (University of Florida)

October 14, 2004


The Supreme Court has filled its docket with thorny issues during the closing stages of an election in which the court’s future is an important campaign issue.

The court heard arguments Wednesday as to whether a 2003 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that decided executing a juvenile offender who committed murder at age 17 would violate the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.

The list of nations that execute juvenile offenders reads like a who’s who of human rights abusers, state sponsors of terrorism and the United States. America has no place next to China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — nations with few, if any, civil freedoms and abysmal human rights records. The court would be long overdue in removing the United States from this list.

The death penalty should not be eliminated entirely, for it is sometimes the only viable punishment states can offer in response to truly heinous crimes. However, it should be limited to individuals 18 years of age or older.

Executions have been banned altogether or reserved for legal adults in 30 states. Florida and four other states consider juvenile offenders adults when they turn 17. Seventeen states consider 16-year-old offenders to be adults eligible for the death penalty. There are 72 juvenile offenders on death row, and 22 executions of juvenile offenders have occurred since 1976.

When the court’s nine justices issue their ruling on this case, they should consider the age of the offenders, who, research suggests, still are developing physically and emotionally and may not fully realize the brutality and gravity of their crimes.

Instead of shirking divisive cases during a divisive election, the Supreme Court has chosen to exercise its governmental branch’s full power in interpreting the Constitution.

Justices will take a side in a culture war that has galvanized conservative Christians and strict constitutionalists. Displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings has ignited a firestorm of debate about America’s religious roots and the role of the government to preserve the nation’s religious pluralism.

Tuesday, the justices agreed to hear a pair of cases — one from Kentucky and one from Texas — that will give them the opportunity to decide the issue. Their ruling is expected by July.

The separation of church and state is paramount, and the court must maintain the wall that prevents the government from endorsing a particular religion. Conservative Christians have gotten lost in this case’s reeds. The merits of the commandments are not being debated, and the values they espouse should be practiced in everyday society without a religious mandate.

When making their decisions, the court’s justices should honor the boundaries between church and state that have kept both institutions strong for more than two centuries. Conservative Christians have argued that this country was built upon a Judeo-Christian foundation, and, while there is a basis for those arguments, it often is ignored that America’s founders were adamant that the nation should not sponsor any religion.

In the past, the court has outlawed official prayer at public school graduation ceremonies and ruled that states cannot pay for students’ religious training. When deciding the Ten Commandments case, the court should determine that religious symbols — representing any creed — are not appropriate in public spaces.

In recent rulings - regarding everything from affirmative action to the execution of moderately mentally retarded offenders — the court’s progressive justices have scored victories. It is essential the Constitution is continued to be interpreted through this balanced, moderate lens.


University Wire (University of Florida)