Eugene Kontorovich’s Problematic Attack on Roper v. Simmons

by Kevin Jon Heller

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 anyoneIt 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.

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/02/13/eugene-kontorovichs-problematic-attack-roper-vs-simmons/

5 Responses

  1. Kontorovich’s argument regarding the proper interpretation European views on the juvenile death penalty is supported in Roper. From the majority opinion:
    “It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime. See Brief for Human Rights Committee of the Bar of England and Wales et al. as Amici Curiae 10-11. The opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.”  Roper v. Simmons, 543, U.S. 551, 578 (2005).
    This of course says nothing about whether the court got it right in Roper.  Personally, I think Kontorovich’s point is less persuasive considering Miller v. Alabama, which relied upon Roper, but not its international/foreign law aspects.  Additionally, the court did not cite any foreign/international law in Miller, to ban LWOP sentences for juveniles.
     

  2. That paragraph does not support Eugene’s argument. There is no indication in it that the Court was referring to Europe, as opposed to the many states in the world that permit the death penalty for adults but not for juveniles. I’m sure some of those states prohibit the death penalty for juveniles because, in contrast to adults, they don’t believe they are emotionally developed enough. But that cannot describe Europe, because Europe prohibits the death penalty for everyone, not just juveniles. 

  3. Note also that the amicus in Roper submitted by the European Union against the juvenile death penalty does not contain a single word supporting the idea that Europe bans the penalty because it believes juveniles are not responsible for their actions. And here is the Council of Europe’s Statement of Interest:

    The Council of Europe, an international organisation composed of 45 European States, fully concurs with the opinions and arguments submitted by the European Union. The Council of Europe has taken the firm position that everyone’s right to life is a basic value and that the abolition of the death penalty is essential to the protection of this right and for the full recognition of the inherent dignity of all.

    That is Europe’s position in a nutshell.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. […] euthanasia law means for America and the Constitution, The Volokh Conspiracy 2. Kevin Jon Heller, Eugene Kontorovich’s Problematic Attack on Roper v. Simmons, Opinio Juris 3. Richard Ekins, A modest proposal: prudence, proportionality and (forced) […]