What happened
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday is hearing arguments in a death penalty case that could decide whether lethal injections used to execute criminals are constitutional, or cause unacceptable pain. (Reuters)

What the commentators said
This case—Baze v. Rees—only challenges the lethal injection procedures in Kentucky, said Andrew Cohen in The Washington Post’s Bench Conference blog, but by extension it questions similar practices in 35 other states. Attorneys for Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling—two convicted murderers—will “tell the justices that animals put to sleep in Kentucky are more closely monitored than the death-row inmates.” Kentucky’s lawyers will argue that the state has already fixed problems that have led to botched injections, and that state courts have said its protocols were “good to go.”

There are two problems with the state’s case, said The New York Times in an editorial (free registration). First, “the death penalty, no matter how it is administered, is unconstitutional and wrong.” Second, even those who believe that execution can be humane and constitutional can’t expect the rest of us to believe that Kentucky’s “‘cocktail’ of injected poisons” doesn’t “impose needless suffering.”

Death-penalty opponents "have tood reason to cheer," said Benjamin Wittes in The New Republic Online. Capital punishment is increasingly on the ropes -- New Jersey has even become the first state in the modern era to repeal it. But a decline in the murder rate -- not a shift in public opinion -- is behind the trend, so the best that activists can hope for is to "lock in systemic reforms"  before  the "tide turns."

The system for handling capital appeals is a good place to start, said Ronald M. George in the Los Angeles Times (free registration). It's “dysfunctional and needs reform.” In California alone, there are 650 inmates on death row, and “the backlog is growing.” One reform that could help is allowing the state Supreme Court to decide on death penalty appeals, instead of sending every case to the U.S. Supreme Court.