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November 7, 2018

Based on oral argument in lethal injection case, is there reason to think Justice Kavanaugh could end up a swing voter in some capital cases?

The question in the title of this post is a product of my inclination to make too much of this New York Times report and this SCOTUSblog review of Justice Brett Kavanaugh's oral argument performance in Bucklew v. Precythe, a capital case from Missouri involving an "as applied" Eighth Amendment challenge to lethal injection.  The Times piece is headlined "Kavanaugh May Hold Key Vote in His First Death Penalty Case," and here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in an appeal from a death row inmate in Missouri with a rare medical condition that he says will cause excruciating pain if he is put to death by lethal injection. Lawyers for the inmate, Russell Bucklew, said his condition, cavernous hemangioma, would make him choke on his own blood during his execution.

It was Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s first death penalty case, and there is good reason to think that he holds the crucial vote. In March, five justices voted to stay Mr. Bucklew’s execution. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whom Justice Kavanaugh replaced, joined the court’s four more liberal members to form a majority; the court’s four more conservative justices were in dissent.

Much of Tuesday’s argument concerned earlier Supreme Court decisions that required inmates challenging lethal injection protocols to identify available and preferable methods of execution. Mr. Bucklew said lethal gas was preferable to the state’s current method of an injection of a lethal dose of pentobarbital. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled that Mr. Bucklew had not shown that his alternative would be less painful.

Justice Kavanaugh seemed to express doubts about the requirement of identifying an alternative, at least where the usual method of execution coupled with an inmate’s unusual medical condition could produce excruciating pain. “Are you saying,” he asked a lawyer for the state, “even if the method creates gruesome and brutal pain you can still do it because there’s no alternative?”

The lawyer, D. John Sauer, did not immediately give a direct response, and Justice Kavanaugh pressed him. “Is that a yes?” Justice Kavanaugh asked. “Yes, it is, Your Honor,” Mr. Sauer said....

“What the Eighth Amendment prohibits is the unnecessary infliction of pain,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “If the death penalty is constitutional, as it now is, there must be a way to administer it. But if you can show that there’s another way that is less painful, then the theory is, again, that it’s an Eighth Amendment claim because it’s unnecessary pain.”

The chief justice questioned Mr. Bucklew’s proposed alternative of nitrogen gas. “How can it be a reasonable alternative if it’s never been used before?” he asked. Robert Hochman, a lawyer for Mr. Bucklew, said that “there are details to be worked out.”

The SCOTUSblg argument review includes these observations:

The justices were relatively subdued but seemed to be mostly divided along ideological lines, and it seemed very possible that the outcome could hinge on the vote of the court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who at times appeared sympathetic to Bucklew....

Kavanaugh appeared concerned about the prospect that inmates like Bucklew could suffer excruciating pain as a result of the method of execution selected by the state.  He asked Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer, who argued for the state, whether an execution could go forward even if would create “gruesome brutal pain.”  When Sauer responded that it could, Kavanaugh pressed him to explain whether there were any limits on how much pain the execution could inflict. Sauer’s answer: Yes, an execution could not go forward if the pain were so gruesome and brutal that the state would be deliberately inflicting pain for the sake of pain.

I am still inclined to predict that the defendant is going to lose here, but these reports still lead me to wonder whether Justice Kavanaugh could prove to be more open generally to claims of capital defendants than other conservative justices.

Prior related post:

November 7, 2018 at 06:45 AM | Permalink

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