Speed Reads

death penalty

Supreme Court clears way for 1st federal execution since 2003 in 5-4 decision

The Supreme Court ruled early Tuesday that the Justice Department can go ahead with three executions this week, dismissing Monday's injunction from a federal judge concerned that the inmates weren't being given enough time to argue their case that the government's lethal injection drug violated their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-4 decision clears the way for the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

"The plaintiffs have not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim," a claim that "faces an exceedingly high bar," the unsigned majority opinion from the court's five conservative justices read. The four more liberal justices issued multiple dissenting opinions.

Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that "significant questions" remain unanswered about the constitutionality of executing prisoners with barbiturate pentobarbital, which the plaintiffs said can cause the terror-inducing sensations of drowning or asphyxiation before an inmate dies. Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the high court is "allowing death-sentenced inmates to be executed before any court can properly consider whether their executions are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual." Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Kagan and Ginsburg, said the court was wrongly accepting "the governments' artificial claim of urgency to truncate ordinary procedures of judicial review."

The federal government has observed a moratorium on capital punishment since 2003.