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June 12, 2006

A Hill of beans

As I feared, the Supreme Court's approach to its decision today in Hill (basics here) isn't really going to help sort out all the on-going lethal injection scrummages.  Not to be too harsh about the inconsequential reality of Hill, but I fear I might be libeling beans (and could get sued by some bean association) if I joke that Hill is even worth a hill of beans.

The unanimous ruling in Hill says little more than that the defendant's effort to challenge a lethal injection protocol through a 1983 action "is comparable in its essentials to the action the Court allowed to proceed under § 1983 in Nelson."  After roughly eight pages making this point, the Court then gives us this sure-to-confound discussion of whether stays ought to be granted while death row defendants pursue lethal injection challenges as 1983 actions (cites omitted):

Filing an action that can proceed under § 1983 does not entitle the complainant to an order staying an execution as a matter of course.  Both the State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence.  Our conclusions today do not diminish that interest, nor do they deprive federal courts of the means to protect it. 

We state again, as we did in Nelson, that a stay of execution is an equitable remedy. It is not available as a matter of right, and equity must be sensitive to the State's strong interest in enforcing its criminal judgments without undue interference from the federal courts.  Thus, like other stay applicants, inmates seeking time to challenge the manner in which the State plans to execute them must satisfy all of the requirements for a stay, including a showing of a significant possibility of success on the merits.

A court considering a stay must also apply "a strong equitable presumption against the grant of a stay where a claim could have been brought at such a time as to allow consideration of the merits without requiring entry of a stay." 

After Nelson a number of federal courts have invoked their equitable powers to dismiss suits they saw as speculative or filed too late in the day.  Although the particular determinations made in those cases are not before us, we recognize that the problem they address is significant.  Repetitive or piecemeal litigation presumably would raise similar concerns.  The federal courts can and should protect States from dilatory or speculative suits, but it is not necessary to reject Nelson to do so.

The equities and the merits of Hill's underlying action are also not before us.  We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Not to be too critical, but if the "State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence," why did the Supreme Court need five months to simply reaffirm its Nelson ruling in Hill?  And if "[r]epetitive or piecemeal litigation" impacts this "important interest," why didn't the Supreme Court also take up the "equities and the merits of Hill's underlying action" in this case?

Put simply, the Hill opinion might seem like a nice, cautious opinion trying to balance a set of important competing concerns.  But, as I have highlighted in prior posts (some linked below), the Supreme Court's handling of the Hill case (and its rulings in all the lethal injection litigation that has followed) reveals that the Justices have a hard time balancing these concerns in the way they deliver their rulings.  And, that reality reinforces my belief that Congress should be trying to clean up the lethal injection mess.

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June 12, 2006 at 11:54 AM | Permalink

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