A bus passes the Supreme Court building in Washington on January 31, 2017.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A bus passes the Supreme Court building in Washington on January 31, 2017.

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Moore's case will now go back to the lower court, which will take a second look at his sentencing

He was convicted of the 1980 murder of James McCarble

(CNN) —  

The Supreme Court sided Tuesday with a death row inmate whose lawyers argued that he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled.

The justices held that a lower court in Texas had used the wrong standard in determining that Bobby James Moore could be put to death. Moore was convicted of the 1980 murder of James McCarble, an employee at the Birdsall Super Market in Houston.

The Supreme Court’s opinion sends a strong signal that Texas – a state that leads the country in executions – needs to broaden its interpretation of who is ineligible for the death penalty based on intellectual disability.

The justices sent the case back down to the lower court with instructions to apply current medical community understandings of intellectual disability.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the 5-3 opinion holding that a lower court that ruled against Moore had relied upon outdated standards

She said the lower court’s conclusion that Moore’s IQ scores established that he is not intellectually disabled are “irreconcilable” with Supreme Court precedent. She said that while the court’s precedent does “not demand adherence to everything stated in the latest medical guide,” it also does not “license disregard” for current medical standards.

“Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake,” she wrote. She was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Moore’s case will now go back to the lower court, which will take a second look at his sentencing.

Lawyers for Moore had argued that the Texas court had ruled against their client by using outdated medical information and refusing to rely on more current clinical definitions of intellectual disability.

“Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that all persons with intellectual disability are exempt from execution,” Cliff Sloan, a lawyer for Moore, said in a statement. He added, “The Supreme Court has sensibly directed Texas courts to be informed by the medical community’s current diagnostic framework before imposing our society’s gravest sentence.”

Texas argued that the state was not required to adhere precisely to clinical definitions put forward by particular medical organizations and said those tests could be subjective.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. He was critical of Ginsburg’s reasoning and warned the majority “crafts a constitutional holding based solely on what it deems to be medical consensus about intellectual disability.” He stressed in part that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had relied upon the state’s expert witness, Dr. Kristi Compton.

Compton testified that her evaluation of Moore – including school, trial and prison records – didn’t show deficits sufficient for a diagnosis of intellectual disability.

“Clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment,” Roberts wrote.

In 2002, the court barred the execution of the intellectually disabled but left it largely up to the states to implement the ruling.

“Today’s ruling is a stern repudiation of how the Texas state courts have applied an earlier Supreme Court decision that had concluded that the Constitution forbids the execution of individuals who are mentally disabled,” said Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at University of Texas School of Law and CNN Supreme Court contributor.

“In essence, the decision clarifies that the relevant question is not whether the defendant was mentally disabled at some point in the past, including at the time of his offense, but whether he is mentally disabled today,” Vladeck said.