Supreme Court's public death penalty battle surges forward

Supreme Court's public death penalty battle surges forward
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Monday advanced its public debate over death penalty cases, as it declined to review the case of an inmate whose execution the justices had previously ruled could go forward.

The court declined to take up the case of Alabama inmate Christopher Lee Price, who had requested that he be executed by nitrogen hypoxia, in which an individual breathes pure nitrogen until they suffocate, rather than lethal injection.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in a move that offered a rare peek into the court’s deliberations, wrote in an opinion accompanying the order that he wanted to “set the record straight” in response to a stinging opinion authored by Justice Stephen Breyer.

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Breyer had accused the court's conservative justices of acting arbitrarily and unfairly to all of the justices by declining a request to wait until the court’s scheduled weekly conference to discuss the death penalty case.

But Thomas wrote that “[t]here is nothing of substance to these assertions.”

Thomas wrote that the court, in the past decision, was to rule whether “lower courts abused their discretion in staying the execution,” and not on other merits of Price’s case.

“Insofar as Justice Breyer was serious in suggesting that the Court simply ‘take no action’ on the State’s emergency motion to vacate until the following day … it should be obvious that emergency applications ordinarily cannot be scheduled for discussion” at the conferences, the conservative justice wrote.

Thomas also wrote that it was “difficult to see” Price’s request to the court “as anything other than an attempt to delay his execution.”

And he said that delaying the execution could hurt victims waiting to see convicted inmates’ executions, and “hamper the States’ ability to carry out lawful judgments, while simultaneously flooding the courts with last-minute, meritless filings.”

Thomas also noted that in not issuing its initial decision quickly, Price’s execution was stayed, regardless.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito joined Thomas in the opinion.