The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear an appeal by Clarence Edward. Hill, a Florida death row inmate who is challenging the method that the state uses to carry out executions. The Court will consider whether Hill was entitled to file his challenge, and whether his challenge may be pursued under federal civil rights law (Section 1983).

Both issues before the Court appear to be procedural disputes, and thus the Court’s answers are not likely to settle whether the execution method Florida uses is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”. If Hill wins, that presumably would clear the way for him to go forward with that issue in lower courts first, with a future appeal to the Supreme Court available. (Doug Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy blog discusses some of the implications of the Court’s action, here.)
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The Court apparently will hear the case and decide it during the current Term, since it set a briefing schedule with the final papers due on April 17. The Court’s final arguments of the Term will be in the week of April 24. (The Court’s April calendar is now full, unless the Court were to agree to grant new cases and schedule them for afternoon hearings in that month.)

Here is the full text of the Court’s order:

“The application for stay of executive of sentence of death presented to Justice Kennedy and by him referred to the Court is granted. The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The brief of petitioner is to be filed with the Clerk and served upon opposing counsel on or before 3 p.m. Monday, March 6, 2006. The brief of respondents is to be filed with the Clerk and served upon opposing counsel on or before 3 p.m., Monday, April 3, 2006. The reply brief, if any, is to be filed with the Clerk and served upon opposing counsel on or before 3 p.m., Monday, April 17, 2006. The stay shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.”

The case is Hill v. Crosby, docket 05-8794.

Here are the two questions the Court agreed to hear:

“1. Whether a complaint brought under 42 USC Sec. 1983 by a death-sentenced state prisoner, who seeks to stay his execution in order to pursue a challenge to the chemicals utilized for carrying out the execution, is properly recharacterized as a habeas corpus petition under 28 USC Sec. 2254?

“2. Whether, under this Court’s decision in Nelson, a challenge to a particular protocol the State plans to use during the execution process constitutes a cognizable claim under 42 USC Sec. 1983?”

The reference is to Nelson v. Alabama, a case the Supreme Court decided May 24, 2004. By a unanimous vote, the Court ruled that an inmate challenging an Alabama procedure for preparing an inimate for death by lethal injection could pursue an Eighth Amendment claim under Section 1983.

However, the Court. in an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said its ruling was “extremely limited,” and stressed that it left open “the question of how to treat method-of-execution claims generally.” It rejected the state’s argument there that the decision in favor of the death row inmate would open the floodgates to all sorts of challenges to execution methods.

In the new case now to be reviewed, the 11th Circuit Court ruled on Tuesday that Hill could not pursue his claim, because it treated his claim as a multiple habeas challenge, and he had not obtained a court’s permission to file it.

Hill was scheduled to die at 6 p.m. Tuesday, but his life was spared by an interim order by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, delaying execution until the Court could consider the appeal it granted on Wednesday. Kennedy referred the case to the full Court, resulting in the new grant. The temporary bar to his execution will remain in effect until the Court decides his case.

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