SCOTUS Federal Execution Dissenters Say Court Rushed 'Grave' Decision

Dissenting Supreme Court justices have bemoaned the "accelerated decisionmaking" in allowing federal executions to proceed for the first time since 2003.

In an unsigned opinion issued in the early hours of Tuesday, the Supreme Court said an earlier preliminary injunction from a District Court should be lifted, stating scheduled executions can go ahead as planned.

Four inmates are set to be executed, the first of them Daniel Lewis Lee, who had been set to receive a lethal injection of pentobarbital on Monday.

However, a District Court moved to prohibit the executions on the grounds such injections could constitute cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court's opinion stated that "the plaintiffs have not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim," thus suggesting removal of the injunction was appropriate. It added that such a claim "faces an exceedingly high bar."

Four Supreme Court Justices dissented against the opinion: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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A sign on the edge of the property at the Federal Correctional Complex where Daniel Lewis Lee was scheduled to be executed on July 13, 2020 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sotomayor's dissent, joined by Ginsburg and Kagan, said the move "sets a dangerous precedent."

"The Court hastily disposes of respondents' Eighth Amendment challenge to the use of pentobarbital in the Federal Government's single-drug execution protocol. In doing so, the Court accepts the Government's artificial claim of urgency to truncate ordinary procedures of judicial review. This sets a dangerous precedent.

"The Government is poised to carry out the first federal executions in nearly two decades. Yet because of the Court's rush to dispose of this litigation in an emergency posture, there will be no meaningful judicial review of the grave, fact-heavy challenges respondents bring to the way in which the Government plans to execute them."

They also argued that the decision is "hard to square" with one previously made by the Supreme Court in December, which blocked the executions taking place until the Court of Appeals could address respondents' "different, but equally serious statutory challenge to the federal execution protocol."

Statements made then "ring hollow," in light of the latest opinion, the dissenters said arguing that the move allows "death-sentenced inmates to be executed before any court
can properly consider whether their executions are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual."

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United States Supreme Court (Front L-R) Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., (Back L-R) Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Elena Kagan and Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh pose for their official portrait at the in the East Conference Room at the Supreme Court building November 30, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In conclusion, Sotomayor wrote: "Today's decision illustrates just how grave the consequences of such accelerated decisionmaking can be. The Court forever deprives respondents of their ability to press a constitutional challenge to their lethal injections, and prevents lower courts from reviewing that challenge.

"All of that is at sharp odds with this Court's own ruling mere months earlier. In its hurry to resolve the Government's emergency motions, I fear the Court has overlooked not only its prior ruling, but also its role in safeguarding robust federal judicial review. I respectfully dissent."

In a separate passage of dissent written by Breyer, and joined by Ginsburg, they argued the constitutionality of the actions being permitted.

Breyer said that "the resumption of federal executions promises to provide examples that illustrate the difficulties of administering the death penalty consistent with the Constitution."

With regards to the chosen execution method, Breyer said "there are significant questions" regarding its constitutionality.

"As I have previously written, the solution may be for this Court to directly examine the question whether the death penalty violates the Constitution," Breyer concluded.

Newsweek has contacted the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court for further comment.

Lee had been scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. EDT on Monday, at Terre Haute in Indiana, for the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife Nancy Mueller and her 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell.

As well as Lee's representatives challenging the proceeding of the execution, the relatives of his victims had also called for it to be delayed as they felt travelling to see it would put them at risk of contracting coronavirus.

Several family members said they oppose Lee's execution but wish to exercise their right to witness it.

The executions were scheduled earlier this year. At the time, Attorney General William Barr said: "The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws. We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."