Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 11

Judge Rosemary Barkett.

2006—In a separate opinion in Henyard v. McDonough, Eleventh Circuit judge Rosemary Barkett, reaching out to address an issue that she concedes (with considerable understatement) “may not be directly before us,” opines that the Eighth Amendment should be construed to bar the death penalty for murderers “with a mental age of less than eighteen years.”

What exactly Barkett means by “mental age” is confused. At one point, she quotes, with seeming approval, a definition of “mental age” as the “chronological age equivalent of the person’s highest level of mental capacity.” But she inconsistently equates it with “emotional level” and says that “even high IQ in an adult defendant” is compatible with “a mental age of a child.” Her test appears to be whether a murderer shares a “child’s inability to understand why the rules exist, to appreciate the consequences of breaking them for herself and for society, and to consistently make judgments based on the foregoing.”

Barkett’s test virtually ensures that most heinous murderers will be deemed to have a mental age below 18. Indeed, she states that there is “no dispute” that Richard Henyard—who carjacked a mother and her two daughters (ages 7 and 3), raped and shot the mother, and shot and killed the daughters—has a mental age below 18.

Barkett’s test would seem to establish that she has the mental age of a child. Does This Day perennial Barkett “understand why the rules exist”? Does she “appreciate the consequences of breaking them”—through her lawless judicial activism? Does she “consistently make judgments based” on those understandings? From the evidence that pervades This Day entries, the answers are no, no, and no.

Ed Whelan — Ed Whelan is a leading commentator on nominations to the Supreme Court and the lower courts and on issues of constitutional law.

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