Attorney General William Barr announced in July that the Justice Department intended to resume carrying out federal executions for death penalty inmates following a 16-year hiatus, which was predictably challenged in court and blocked.
In a double blow for Barr, The Supreme Court has now temporarily upheld the lower court’s injunction against federal executions, Fox News reported.
Case kicked back down to D.C. Circuit Court
Federal executions were placed on hiatus due to controversy and difficulties in obtaining the standard three-drug cocktail used for lethal injunctions. In Barr’s July announcement, he made clear that the government would use only one drug — pentobarbital — to carry out such sentences in the future, to avoid the earlier issues.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., an Obama appointee, issued an injunction against any executions citing the potential that they would conflict with federal laws on the death penalty.
Courthouse News reported that the Justice Department filed an appeal but a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court upheld the district court ruling.
The government’s lawyers then sought an emergency stay against the injunction by the Supreme Court, but the high court also upheld the injunction temporarily, kicking the case back down to the D.C. Circuit Court for a full review to be conducted with “appropriate dispatch.”
Alito suggests government will eventually prevail
In a statement released to the media, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said, “While we are disappointed with the ruling, we will argue the case on its merits in the D.C. Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court.”
The case will likely return to the Supreme Court before too long. Justice Samuel Alito, who was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh in releasing a statement along with the ruling, indicated that the government will likely prevail in the end.
“The Court has expressed the hope that the Court of Appeals will proceed with ‘appropriate dispatch,’ and I see no reason why the Court of Appeals should not be able to decide this case, one way or the other, within the next 60 days,” Alito wrote, according to Fox.
Courthouse News noted Alito also wrote, “In light of what is at stake, it would be preferable for the District Court’s decision to be reviewed on the merits by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit before the executions are carried out.”
Four scheduled executions in limbo
The Supreme Court’s decision means that two executions scheduled for Monday and Friday of this coming week, both murderers who killed multiple people including children, will be blocked. Two more executions of child murderers scheduled for January are also now in doubt.
While the decision of the Supreme Court is indeed disappointing, it is heartening that Justice Alito noted the federal government will likely prevail once the case has fully run its course through the judicial system.