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Federal death-row inmates ask court to put on hold D.C. Circuit ruling that would allow executions to proceed (Updated)

This morning federal death-row inmates asked the Supreme Court to temporarily block a lower-court ruling that upheld new federal regulations for carrying out the death penalty. The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is scheduled to go into effect tomorrow, would allow the federal government to resume executions for the first time in over 15 years.

This is the second time that the justices have been asked to intervene in the dispute between the inmates and the federal government over the lethal-injection protocol that the government plans to use to execute them. In November, a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., put the executions on hold indefinitely. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that federal law requires the government to carry out executions using not only the same method of execution – here, lethal injection – as the state in which the execution takes place, but also precisely the same protocol. When the D.C. Circuit refused to stay Chutkan’s order while the government appealed, the government went to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to lift the order and allow executions to proceed. The Supreme Court rejected the government’s request, but it added that it expected the D.C. Circuit to “render its decision with appropriate dispatch.”

A divided three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit issued its decision in early April, overturning Chutkan’s order. Judges Gregory Katsas and Neomi Rao agreed (although for different reasons) that the lower court had misinterpreted federal death-penalty laws; Judge David Tatel dissented. On May 15, the full court of appeals declined to weigh in; the court’s ruling goes into effect tomorrow at 5 p.m.

In their filing today, the inmates urged the justices to “maintain the status quo while deciding whether to answer the important questions presented in” their petition for review of the D.C. Circuit’s decision, which they filed last week. The decision below, they added, not only “raises more questions than it resolves about how to conduct federal executions” and “announces sweeping principles that will reshape administrative practice if they take root,” but is “also wrong, as proper application of prevailing principles of statutory interpretation and administrative law readily demonstrate.” And if the decision is not put on hold, they continued, the government could execute the inmates even though the protocol may later be determined to be illegal.

The inmates’ request went to Chief Judge John Roberts, who handles emergency appeals from the District of Columbia. He can rule on the request himself, but he is more likely to refer it to the full court.

Update: The chief justice has called for a response, which is due Wednesday, June 17, by 3 p.m. EDT.

[Disclosure: Goldstein & Russell, P.C. (or its predecessor firm) has in the past served as as counsel to Wesley Purkey, one of the inmates in this case, but neither the firm nor the author of this post represents him at this time or is otherwise involved in this litigation.]

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Federal death-row inmates ask court to put on hold D.C. Circuit ruling that would allow executions to proceed (Updated), SCOTUSblog (Jun. 11, 2020, 12:41 PM),