High Court Clears Way for Resuming Executions

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Authority of Law Statue, in front of Supreme Court building, Washington. Photo by Matt Wade via Flickr

The Supreme Court said Monday that it would not review a challenge to new federal death penalty protocols proposed by the Justice Department, which wants to resume executions as early as next month for the first time since 2003, the Washington Post reports.

The court refused, 7-2, to take up the lawsuit by four death row inmates. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor voted to accept the case. Attorney General William Barr has said the department planned to resume executions using a new lethal-injection procedure that involves a single drug, pentobarbital.

The Justice Department has made plans for three executions in July and a fourth in August. All involve inmates convicted of murdering children.

Inmates’ lawyers challenged the new procedures. A district judge said the government’s new protocol was inconsistent with the Federal Death Penalty Act, which requires federal executions be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed.”

“Today’s ruling removes a major obstacle to the resumption of federal executions, but not the only one,” commented Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, CNN reported.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled 2-1 that the executions could move forward. Two judges — Gregory Katsas and Neomi Rao, both nominees of President Donald Trump — lifted the district judge’s injunction but disagreed on the legal reasoning.

Katsas concluded the law applies only to the top-line choice among execution methods, such as whether to use lethal injection instead of hanging or electrocution. Rao found the law also requires the federal government to follow execution procedures set forth in state law, but not procedures from less formal state execution protocols.

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