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Justices refuse to allow federal government to carry out executions for now

Tonight the Supreme Court turned down a request from the federal government to allow the executions of four federal inmates to go forward. The first execution, of inmate Daniel Lee, had originally been scheduled for next Monday morning, but the government urged the justices to allow the executions to proceed, even if it would mean that the inmates would be executed while their appeals were still pending.

The government came to the Supreme Court on Monday of this week, after a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., barred the government from going forward with the executions. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that federal law requires the government to conduct executions using the exact same protocol, rather than simply the same method of execution, as the state where the execution is taking place. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the government’s request to stay or vacate Chutkan’s order, leading to the government’s filing this week.

In a short unsigned order, the justices tonight allowed Chutkan’s order to stand – at least for now. The court added that it expects the D.C. Circuit to “render its decision with appropriate dispatch.”

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a statement regarding tonight’s order, joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The federal government, Alito suggested, “has shown that it is very likely to prevail when this question is ultimately decided.” Alito cited “strong evidence” that the district court’s interpretation of the federal law governing executions is incorrect, and he added that the district court’s reading of the law “would lead to results that Congress is unlikely to have intended.”

Overturning the district court’s bar on executions “would not necessarily mean that the prisoners in question would be executed before the merits of” their challenge can finally be resolved, Alito posited, because the inmates could raise other challenges to the government’s lethal-injection protocol. “Nevertheless,” Alito concluded, “in light of what is at stake, it would be preferable for the District Court’s decision to be reviewed on the merits” by the D.C. Circuit before the inmates are executed. Alito agreed with his colleagues that the D.C. Circuit should act quickly, writing that he sees “no reason why the Court of Appeals should not be able to decide this case, one way or the other, within the next 60 days.”

Shawn Nolan, a lawyer for the inmates, applauded tonight’s order, stressing that “[t]hree courts have now agreed that the federal government’s new execution protocol must be fully adjudicated before it can be used to carry out executions. The courts have made clear,” Nolan concluded, “that the government cannot rush executions in order to evade judicial review of the legality and constitutionality of its new execution procedure.”

Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, indicated that although the government was “disappointed with the ruling, we will argue the case on its merits in the D.C. Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court. The Department of Justice is committed to upholding the rule of law and to carrying forward sentences imposed by our justice system.”

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Justices refuse to allow federal government to carry out executions for now, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 6, 2019, 8:15 PM),