Supreme Court clears way for federal executions
The Supreme Court early Tuesday cleared the way for federal executions to be carried out for the first time since 2003, over objections from death row inmates to the Trump administration’s revised method for carrying out federal death sentences.
The conservative-majority court in an unsigned opinion rejected claims that the lethal injection protocol that the Department of Justice adopted last year amounted to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
The executions had been scheduled for Monday afternoon, beginning with Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of murdering a family of three in 1996. But a federal judge in Washington blocked the killing just hours before it was to be carried out.
A federal appeals court in Washington hours later declined the Trump administration’s emergency request to reinstate the executions. Then just after 2 a.m. Tuesday, the Supreme Court permitted the executions to proceed under a new protocol using pentobarbital sodium.
The court’s five conservative members — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — approved the new method.
The majority said vacating the lower court’s decision is warranted because the inmates are unlikely to succeed “on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim,” which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment and “faces an exceedingly high bar.”
The court’s four more liberal members, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented on various grounds.
“This sets a dangerous precedent. The Government is poised to carry out the first federal executions in nearly two decades,” Sotomayor wrote in a dissent joined by Ginsburg and Kagan.
“Yet because of the Court’s rush to dispose of this litigation in an emergency posture, there will be no meaningful judicial review of the grave, fact-heavy challenges respondents bring to the way in which the Government plans to execute them,” Sotomayor added.
A federal execution has not been carried out since 2003, due in part to a widespread shortage during the Obama administration of lethal injection drugs in the so-called three-drug cocktail.
Attorney General William Barr announced last July that federal capital punishment would resume with the use of a single drug, pentobarbital sodium.
–Updated at 7:38 a.m.