« Tragic and personal criminal justice story: the killing of Professor Dan Markel | Main | How many of nearly 50,000 federal prisoners need a lawyer to help with drug sentence reduction efforts? How many will get a lawyer? »

July 21, 2014

Split Ninth Circuit panel stays Arizona execution based on First Amendment (really?!?!) drug secrecy concerns

BartAs reported in this new New York Times piece, a "federal appeals court has delayed the imminent execution of an Arizona man, saying he has a legal right to details about the lethal injection drugs to be used and about the qualifications of the execution team." Here is more about a ruling sure to garner more attention (and litigation) in the week ahead:

The ruling on Saturday, by a divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, contrasted sharply with recent decisions by other state and federal courts defending states’ rights to keep information about drug sources secret. “This is the first time a circuit court has ruled that the plaintiff has a right to know the source of execution drugs,” said Jennifer Moreno, an expert on lethal injection law at the Death Penalty Clinic of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

The appeals court ruling came four days before the scheduled execution of Joseph Wood, who was convicted of the killings of two people and sentenced to death....

Arizona officials ... Sunday ... appealed to the Ninth Circuit for reconsideration by a wider panel of judges and it appeared possible that the state would appeal all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary.

Federal or state courts in places including Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas have permitted executions to take place despite similar challenges to secrecy about drug manufacturers. So far, the Supreme Court has refused to intervene. The Arizona case reflects the growing turmoil in the administration of capital punishment as the supply of traditionally used drugs has dried up, mainly because companies are unwilling to sell them for executions. States are trying out new drug combinations and scrambling for secret sources, while lawyers for the condemned have argued that they have a right to know precise details about drug origins and quality....

Mr. Wood was sentenced to death for the 1989 murders of his estranged girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father. He was scheduled to be executed on Wednesday. Lacking its two preferred execution drugs, Arizona officials said they would use a combination of the drugs midazolam and hydromorphone, which has been used by Ohio.

The state said it obtained drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration with expiration dates in the fall of 2015, but refused to reveal the manufacturers and batch numbers. It also refused to provide details about the qualifications of those who would administer the drugs, saying this could lead to disclosure of their identities.

Lawyers for Mr. Wood, led by Dale Baich, a federal public defender in Phoenix, challenged the secrecy, arguing that it violated their client’s First Amendment rights of access to public proceedings. A Federal District Court sided with the state, but on Saturday, the appeals panel ruled that Mr. Wood “has presented serious questions going to the merits of his claim,” according to the majority opinion, written by Judge Sidney R. Thomas. Arizona’s secrecy, he wrote, “ignores the ongoing and intensifying debate over lethal injection in this country, and the importance of providing specific and detailed information about how safely and reliably the death penalty is administered.”

In a dissent, Judge Jay S. Bybee said the court had drastically expanded the “right of access” and had misused the First Amendment “as the latest tool in this court’s ongoing effort to bar the state from lawfully imposing the death penalty.”

The majority Ninth Circuit panel opinion runs 28 pages, is available at this link, and concludes this way:

Because we conclude that Wood has raised serious questions as to the merits of his First Amendment claim; that the balance of equities tips sharply in his favor; that he will face irreparable harm if the injunction is not granted; and that the injunction is in the public interest; we conclude that the district court abused its discretion in denying Wood’s preliminary injunction request.  We do not decide with certainty that a First Amendment right exists to the information Wood seeks, nor do we resolve the merits of the Plaintiffs’ underlying § 1983 claim. We do, however, reverse the district court’s denial of Wood’s preliminary injunction motion. We grant a conditional preliminary injunction, staying Wood’s execution until the State of Arizona has provided him with (a) the name and provenance of the drugs to be used in the execution and (b) the qualifications of the medical personnel, subject to the restriction that the information provided will not give the means by which the specific individuals can be identified. Once he has received that information, the injunction shall be discharged without more and the execution may proceed.

The dissenting opinion by Judge Bybee runs 35 pages, is available at this link, and makes these concluding points:

The decision to inflict the death penalty is a grave and solemn one that deserves the most careful consideration of the public, the elected branches of government, and the courts. We must be cognizant that a life is at stake. But we cannot conflate the invocation of a constitutional right belonging to the public at-large — such as the First Amendment right of public access to certain proceedings and documents — with a policy judgment about if and when the death penalty ought to be imposed. In so doing, we usurp the authority of the Arizona legislature and disregard the instructions of the Supreme Court.

July 21, 2014 at 08:14 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e201a511e5dd0b970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Split Ninth Circuit panel stays Arizona execution based on First Amendment (really?!?!) drug secrecy concerns:

Comments

The guy only has two names. He's clearly not a heinous murderer.

Seriously, you some time back, posted a link to a discussion on how access to this information is proper for due process reasons. I found it convincing. As to this opinion, not so much, except as a matter of reasonable public policy (not sure about all of the talk about access of the public to executions).

Who knows. Maybe, a 1A hook will help convince Justice Kennedy.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 21, 2014 10:00:17 AM

There is also Judge Kozinski:

http://pdfserver.amlaw.com/nlj/koz-dissent-20140721.pdf

Posted by: Joe | Jul 21, 2014 6:26:48 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB