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Supreme Court won’t allow federal executions to resume

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Friday that it would not allow the Trump administration to resume executions in federal death penalty cases after a 16-year hiatus. The move, which left in place a preliminary injunction from a federal judge in Washington, effectively stayed the executions of four men scheduled to be put to death in the coming weeks. The court’s brief, unsigned order said it expected an appeals court to decide the inmates’ challenges “with appropriate dispatch.”

In a separate statement, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, said that the inmates “were convicted in federal court more than 15 years ago for exceptionally heinous murders” and that “the government has shown that it is very likely to prevail” when the case moves forward.

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“Nevertheless,” Alito 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.”

He wrote that he would have set a deadline for the appeals court to act.

“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. “The question, though important, is straightforward and has already been very ably briefed in considerable detail by both the solicitor general and by the prisoners’ 17-attorney legal team.”

“For these reasons,” he wrote, “I would state expressly in the order issued today that the denial of the application to vacate is without prejudice to the filing of a renewed application if the injunction is still in place 60 days from now.”

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Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the department would continue to press for the executions.

“While we are disappointed with the ruling,” she said in a statement, “we will argue the case on its merits in the D.C. Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court. The Department of Justice is committed to upholding the rule of law and to carrying forward sentences imposed by our justice system.”

Attorney General William Barr set off the court fight when he announced in July that the federal government would end what had amounted to a moratorium on capital punishment. Last month, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, of the US District Court in Washington, blocked the executions, saying the protocol the government planned to use did not comply with the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which requires executions to be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed.”

On Dec. 2, a unanimous three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit refused to stay Chutkan’s preliminary injunction. That same day, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to step in.

The central legal question in the case is whether the word “manner” in the 1994 law refers to the methods of execution authorized by the relevant states (like hanging, firing squad, or lethal injection) or the protocols the states require (like the particular chemicals used in lethal injections or how a catheter is to be inserted).

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In his July announcement, Barr said the federal government would replace the three-chemical cocktail it had used in earlier executions with a single chemical, pentobarbital.

Chutkan wrote that using a uniform nationwide protocol was not authorized by the 1994 law. All of the relevant states permit or require executions by lethal injections but the details of their protocols vary. That meant, Chutkan wrote, that the federal protocol was at odds with the 1994 law.