June 12, 2006

Nine-Judge Monte

Hatched by Dafydd

The most recent unanimous decision of the Court on the question of the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution really doesn't advance the question much, at least as far as us non-lawyers are concerned. (Our last foray on this battleground was Three-Judge Monte, back in April.)

All that the Court decided was that convicted cop killer and bank robber Clarence E. Hill can raise the issue with the lower courts; the Supreme Court did not rule that lethal injection was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that condemned prisoners can challenge the humaneness of the lethal blend of chemicals that are to be used to execute them.

The ruling, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, continues the life-and-death drama involving Clarence E. Hill, who was strapped to a gurney on Florida's death row when Justice Kennedy granted a stay of execution on Jan. 25.

You can read the decision and the full opinion here, but this is the Readers Digest condensed version:

Facing execution in Florida, petitioner Hill brought this federal action under 42 U. S. C. §1983 to enjoin the three-drug lethal injection procedure the State likely would use on him. He alleged the procedure could cause him severe pain and thereby violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments. The District Court found that under controlling Eleventh Circuit precedent the §1983 claim was the functional equivalent of a habeas petition. Because Hill had sought federal habeas relief earlier, the court deemed his petition successive and barred under 28 U. S. C. §2244. The Eleventh Circuit agreed and affirmed.

Held: Because Hill's claim is comparable in its essentials to the §1983 action the Court allowed to proceed in Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U. S. 637, it does not have to be brought in habeas, but may proceed under §1983. Pp. 4-10.

In other words, this is a narrow, technical ruling whether the action Hill filed under §1983 of the United States Code was actually just another bite at the same habeus corpus apple, or whether it's a different apple from his previous writs. The Court unanimously held that this was a different issue that should be decided on its own, not brushed aside.

Beyond that, we've not much to say until this works its way through the system and comes back to the Court again... where (one hopes) sanity (and the Scalia position) will prevail:

On the other side, Justice Antonin Scalia, a strong death penalty supporter, said the Supreme Court has never held that a state must use a method that causes the least amount of pain.

"Hanging was not a quick and easy way to go," Scalia said.

(Alas, that last quotation is from a Reuters article that is no longer available.)

We've fought this battle before:

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, June 12, 2006, at the time of 3:56 PM

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