Evincing that things may be in a bit of disarray since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court on Monday made a misstep when agreeing to hear the case of a prisoner seeking to challenge his death sentence.

The case was one of two death penalty appeals the court added to its docket for its next term, which begins in October.

The Texas inmate, Bobby Moore, had actually asked the court to review two constitutional issues relating to his capital sentence:

Supreme Court of the United States
A Texas death row inmate who wanted his case heard by the Supreme Courtraised two important questions.

Both are significant questions, implicating recent decisions and statements by the Supreme Court or individual justices with respect to the death penalty or its application to specific defendants.

As part of their usual Monday business, the justices issued an order at 9:30 a.m. noting that they would agree to hear the two questions raised by Moore’s petition:

Supreme Court of the United States

That was a big deal, because the second question of Moore’s petition — whether sitting on death row for 35 years amounts to cruel and unusual punishment — touches on one of the practices Justice Stephen Breyer has repeatedly singled out as problematic in America’s system of capital punishment.

That development was short-lived. 

At around 11:44 a.m., a court spokeswoman alerted the press that the court had made a mistake and that now only the first question in Moore’s petition was accepted for review.

The court accordingly amended the order and republished it on its website:

Supreme Court of the United States

That means Moore — who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1980 and has been awaiting punishment since — will not get an answer to whether the length of his confinement, much of which is in complete isolation, violates the Constitution.

The remaining question in his case is still important: The Supreme Court will now decide whether states may rely on outdated medical standards when determining whether a person who is intellectually disabled merits the death penalty.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that it’s unconstitutional to sentence to death someone who is intellectually disabled, and that states may not use rigid “cutoff” tests when assessing a person’s mental disability. States, however, are far from consistent in the assessments they use.

For Moore, this is a matter of life and death: Relying on experts, a court had determined that he bore all the hallmarks of someone who was intellectually disabled – including an IQ of 70, deplorable school performance, and “sub-normal intellectual functioning.” But Texas has resisted these findings and has insisted that Moore be assessed using older medical standards for intellectual disability.

Here’s hoping the court’s final decision in the case will bring some clarity to that area of the law, if not to those who were a little confused by its actions on Monday.

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