By Lisa Soronen
Madison v. Alabama provides clarity rather than makes new law.
In this case, the Supreme Court held 5-3 that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a person who lacks a “rational understanding” due to mental illness for why the death penalty has been imposed to be put to death regardless of what mental illness the person is suffering from.
Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1985. Since then he has suffered a series of strokes and has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. He claims he no longer remembers the crime for which he has been sentenced to death.
In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments disallows executing a person who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing. The court “clarified the scope of that category in Panetti v. Quarterman  by focusing on whether a prisoner can ‘reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution.’”
Madison initially argued that he could not be executed because he could not remember his crime. He ultimately conceded that he can because “a person lacking memory of his crime may yet rationally understand why the state seeks to execute him; if so, the Eighth Amendment poses no bar to his execution.” The majority of the Supreme Court agreed with Madison, in an opinion written by Justice Elise Kagan, because Panetti “asks about understanding, not memory—more specifically, about a person’s understanding of why the state seeks capital punishment for a crime, not his memory of the crime itself.”
Alabama initially argued that Madison could be executed because he suffers from dementia instead of psychotic delusions, which Ford and Panetti suffered from. Alabama ultimately conceded that “a person suffering from dementia may be unable to rationally understand the reasons for his sentence; if so, the Eighth Amendment does not allow his execution.”
Again, the Supreme Court agreed with Alabama that Panetti focuses on the effect of the mental disorder, not its cause: “an inability to rationally understand why the state is seeking execution.”
The Supreme Court was unable to determine whether Madison’s execution could go forward because the lower court didn’t determine whether Madison had a rational understanding of why Alabama sought to execute him. The court sent this case back to the lower court to make that determination.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the more liberal justices to form the 5-3 majority. Justice Brett Kavanaugh didn’t participate in the case. Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, dissented arguing that the only issue the court had agreed to hear in this case was whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a person who cannot recall committing the murder for which the death sentence was imposed. They agreed with the majority it does not.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.