Eugene Kontorovich’s Problematic Attack on Roper v. Simmons
I’m currently in Belgium, teaching an intensive course on international criminal law at Katholieke University Leuven. So I was struck by Eugene Kontorovich’s most recent post at the Volokh Conspiracy, in which he uses a new Belgian law permitting euthanasia for minors to criticize the Supreme Court’s abolition of the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons. Here is the crux of his argument (emphasis mine):
Aside from its inherent significance, Belgium’s move requires us to revisit Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 Supreme Court case that ruled it inherently unconstitutional to apply the death penalty to anyone under 18. European nations had long waged a moral campaign against America’s allowance of the death penalty for 16-18 year olds, which they called barbaric and savage. After all, minors are not really responsible for their actions. America was labelled a human rights violator, an international outlier.
Finally, in Roper, the Court caved in to this pressure. Indeed, it cited the European position as support for its conclusion – other countries do not allow for such a thing.
Why can a 17 year-old rapist-murderer not face capital punishment? Because, as Justice Kennedy wrote in a 5-4 decision, science has shown that minors, even 17-year-olds, are too immature to truly understand the consequences of their decisions, or the meaning of life and death. Juveniles are prone to “impetuous and ill-considered actions” that they should not be made to lose their life for, even if the action involved taking the life of another.” Moreover, juveniles are susceptible to peer pressure, Kennedy wrote. (Of course, one of the concerns in allowing euthanasia is external pressure from doctors, parents and others.)
Yet now we see Belgium thinks kids are responsible enough; the Netherlands similarly allows euthanasia as young as 12. These countries may be the way of the future, as they have been in other areas of progressive mores. Roper misread their belief system. It is not one of paternalistic concern for youth.
Eugene does not provide a link for his assertion that Europe opposes the juvenile death penalty because “minors are not really responsible for their actions.” But I don’t think that’s surprising, because Europe’s opposition to the juvenile death penalty is not based on that idea. Europe has abolished the juvenile death penalty because it rejects the very idea of the death penalty itself, not because it believe minors are not responsible for their actions. After all, no European state other than Belarus permits the death penalty for anyone. It is thus irrelevant for Roper‘s purposes that Belgium and the Netherlands believe that minors are capable of making an informed decision to end their own lives; that in no way undermines their opposition to the juvenile death penalty. To sustain Eugene’s argument, he would have to identify a state that (1) permits the death penalty for adults while prohibiting it for juveniles on the ground that juveniles, unlike adults, are not responsible for their actions, but (2) allows juveniles to take their own lives on the ground that they are capable of making an informed decision to do so. Belgium and the Netherlands don’t qualify.
It’s also worth noting that, in his zeal to level a “gotcha” at Roper, Eugene misstates Belgian criminal law. Here is what he says about Belgium’s rejection of the juvenile death penalty (emphasis mine):
It is not one of paternalistic concern for youth. Rather, a system that permits the euthanasia of innocent 12 year-olds but not the punishment of guilty 17-year-olds is one that exalts autonomy without culpability.
Of course, with the juvenile death penalty, only a small fraction of minors who committed capital crimes would be sentenced to death. On a case by case basis, hosts of psychologists, jurors, and judges would have to be convinced that the particular defendant truly knew what they were doing.
So it comes out that the juveniles cannot really make accountable decisions when it comes to killing people, unless it is themselves. Or to put it differently, Belgium will not hold children responsible when they hurt others, but gives them free license to hurt themselves. Perversely, in Belgium, the youths who are considered grown up enough to be euthanized have not done anything wrong at all, unlike Simmons, who tied up his victim and thew him off a bridge.
This is simply false. Belgium most certainly holds juveniles criminally responsible for their actions — it simply doesn’t permit executing them. In Belgium, children between the ages of 12 and 15 can be prosecuted in juvenile court and imprisoned until they are 20. And children who are 16 and 17 — the latter being the age that Eugene singles out — can be prosecuted for murder in the Court of Assize and sentenced to a maximum of 30 years in adult prison. Eugene may think a 30-year sentence for a 17-year-old who commits murder is too lenient, but he cannot seriously contend that Belgian criminal law does not permit “the punishment of guilty 17-year-olds,” that it is based on the idea that “juveniles cannot really make accountable decisions when it comes to killing people,” or that it “will not hold children responsible when they hurt others.”
I often agree with Eugene on issues other than Israel (piracy and universal jurisdiction in particular). But his attempt to use Belgian criminal law to attack Roper is fatally flawed.