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Opinion analysis: Majority upholds Kansas scheme for mentally ill defendants

Until 1979, every jurisdiction in the United States allowed mentally ill defendants to assert what was traditionally regarded as an insanity defense – that is, to argue that because they did not understand that their actions were wrong, they cannot be held criminally responsible for those actions. Since then, five states, including Kansas, have abolished that defense. Today, by a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court ruled that a state’s failure to allow a mentally ill defendant to raise such a defense does not violate the Constitution.

The ruling came in the case of James Kahler, who in November 2009 shot and killed four members of his family: his estranged wife, the couple’s two daughters and his wife’s grandmother. At Kahler’s trial on four counts of first-degree murder, the prosecution’s expert testified that Kahler could have formed the kind of premeditated intent to kill required for a death sentence, while an expert for Kahler countered with testimony that at the time of the shooting Kahler had been so depressed that he could not help himself. But Kahler could not defend himself by arguing that he was insane: In 1995, Kansas had abolished the traditional insanity defense, replacing it with a new law that allows defendants to argue only that they could not have intended to commit the crime because of their mental illness. Kahler was convicted and sentenced to death.

On appeal, the Kansas Supreme Court rejected Kahler’s argument that the state’s failure to allow him to raise an insanity defense violated the Constitution. Today the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, upheld that ruling.

Kagan began by explaining that Kahler faced a high bar in arguing that the Kansas rule violated his constitutional right to due process. The Supreme Court will only deem a state’s rule about when someone can be held criminally liable unconstitutional if it offends “fundamental” principles of justice. The court must ask whether a rule of criminal responsibility is “so entrenched in the central values of our legal system” that a state could never choose a different one. Decisions about when a mentally ill defendant cannot be held liable for his crimes are, Kagan emphasized, precisely the kind of question that the Supreme Court has left to the states. In fact, she noted, the court has made clear that “due process imposes no single canonical formulation of legal insanity.”

Despite Kahler’s argument, Kagan reasoned, Kansas does have an insanity defense, even if it isn’t the insanity defense that Kahler wanted: Kahler could present evidence about his mental illness to try to show that he did not intend to kill. Moreover, Kagan added, the state also allows a defendant to present evidence about his mental health at sentencing, in the hope that it will result in a reduced punishment or even a commitment to a mental health facility instead of a prison.

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, in an opinion that was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Breyer agreed with the majority that “the Constitution gives the States broad leeway to define state crimes and criminal procedures, including leeway to provide different definitions and standards related to the defense of insanity.” But Kansas went beyond that, Breyer argued: The state has “not simply redefined the insanity defense,” but instead has “eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries” – the idea that, because of his mental illness, a defendant could not be considered morally responsible for his crime. And that principle is so fundamental, Breyer asserted, that eliminating it did violate Kahler’s constitutional right to due process.

To illustrate his point, Breyer returned to an example he had used during the oral argument in October, involving two defendants who are on trial for the shooting death of another person. In one case, Breyer wrote, the defendant – because of severe mental illness – believed that he was killing a dog, while in the second case the defendant believed, as a result of severe mental illness, that a dog had told him to kill the person. “Under the insanity defense as traditionally understood,” Breyer explained, “the government cannot convict either defendant,” because neither defendant understood that his actions were wrong. But under the Kansas scheme, Breyer continued, the second defendant can be convicted – despite his mental illness – because he would have intended to kill the person even if only because he believed a dog had ordered him to do so.

Breyer rejected the state’s explanation that it had “not abolished the insanity defense or any significant part of it” and instead had “simply moved the stage at which a defendant can present the full range of mental-capacity evidence to sentencing.” Tradition, Breyer stressed, “demands that an insane defendant should not be found guilty in the first place”; once an insane defendant is found guilty in Kansas, Breyer observed, he is “exposed to harsh criminal sanctions up to and including death.”

As Breyer recounted in his dissent, 45 states, along with the federal government and the District of Columbia, recognize an insanity defense that considers in some way whether the defendant is morally responsible for his actions. Only a few other states currently use a defense similar to the one used in Kansas, although that number could change as a result of today’s opinion.

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Opinion analysis: Majority upholds Kansas scheme for mentally ill defendants, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 23, 2020, 2:22 PM),