Opinions Show Justices’ Rift Over Death Penalty

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The Supreme Court’s simmering discord over death penalty issues burst into public view on Monday, as justices issued a half-dozen opinions criticizing one another and revealing divisions within the conservative majority as well as between right and left, reports the Wall Street Journal. Justice Samuel Alito published an opinion disclosing his vote in March to deny a stay of execution, prompting Chief Justice John Roberts to reveal his own vote on the other side. The case involved Buddhist inmate Patrick Murphy, who challenged a Texas prison policy that would forbid his spiritual adviser from accompanying him in the death chamber, while allowing chaplains from other religions. The court stayed the execution. The previous month, the court voted 5-4 to allow Alabama to execute Muslim Domineque Ray, despite the state’s refusal to permit an imam to accompany him in the death chamber.

The different treatment of the murderers raised questions. On Monday, Alito’s opinion, which Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined, said “inexcusably late stay applications present a recurring and important problem.” Both inmates’ claims “are important and may ultimately be held to have  merit,” though “they are not simple,” Alito said. The “last minute” timing of the claims suggested the prisoners were simply seeking to stall their deaths, and therefore should be denied so as not to invite similar “abuse,” Alito wrote. That prompted a response from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which Chief Justice Roberts joined, revealing that the vote for Murphy’s stay was 6-3. Kavanaugh said Murphy’s claim was timely while Ray’s wasn’t, and that the Murphy argument included theories missing from the Ray petition. In another case, Thomas wrote “to set the record straight” on an April order rejecting Alabama inmate Christopher Lee Price’s request for a stay of execution, issued over the objection of the four liberal justices.

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