During its last term, the U.S. Supreme Court granted stays of execution only three times. USA Today, analyzing nearly 1,000 requests for stays of execution in the past decade, concludes that the high court “is taking a harder line.” The court does not publicize the figures, but the newspaper found that in 1993-94, the justices granted a stay in nearly one fourth of the requests. Last term, the figure was 3.2 percent.
“The nation’s court of last resort has made it clear – with unusual unanimity and little public discussion – that it wants lower courts to carry more of the burden in screening death-row appeals, and that it wants a small role in the debate over capital punishment,” USA Today says.
Says Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta: “I think the Rehnquist court … would like to be out of the business of reviewing capital cases.”
Seven of the nine justices routinely vote against postponing executions: Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Stephen Breyer.
The two others, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented in about 10% of the cases in which the court rejected a stay of execution during the last term; they did not say why.
Even defendants’ rights advocates say that most last-ditch pleas to the court lack merit. By the time the pleas reach the justices, condemned prisoners have been through state and federal lower court systems, sometimes more than once.