Justices hear arguments on Fla. executions

Court appears divided on whether injection might be cruel and unusual punishment

April 27, 2006|By DAVID G. SAVAGE | DAVID G. SAVAGE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court justices sounded split along conservative and liberal lines yesterday during arguments on whether injections might be a cruel and painful method of execution.

The justices are not likely to decide that ultimate question in the Florida case at hand, which focuses on a narrow issue. But the arguments offered insights into how the Supreme Court views the controversial issue of how best to put someone to death.

The justices took up a Florida case to settle a procedural issue. Can a state death-row inmate who has appealed a conviction and lost in the federal courts file a new, last-minute claim in federal court to challenge the state's method of execution?

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that the answer should be "no." Otherwise, inmates would use the new lawsuits to further delay their executions, they said. The chief justice said he was "willing to bet" that if Florida changed its method of execution, defense lawyers would challenge that as well.

In January, lawyers for Clarence Hill won a last-minute stay for their client on the day that he faced execution. He was condemned to die for the killing of a Florida police officer in 1982.

His appeal cited new medical studies which suggested that one of the drugs used in executions might mask the inmate's pain by paralyzing his muscles.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked a Florida state lawyer what a judge should do if the evidence showed that the drug concoction would cause "excruciating pain" for the dying man.

Florida state lawyer Carolyn Snurkowski said that nothing should be done because the condemned man had failed to suggest a better alternative.

Her answer did not sit well with several justices. That "strikes me as a little odd," said Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Why should the inmate, not the state, be responsible for finding a humane method of execution? asked Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Justice John Paul Stevens, a part-time resident of Florida, pointed out that the state had adopted new regulations to ensure that dogs and cats are put to death without pain.

If Kennedy were to join with the court's liberal bloc in the Florida case, the Supreme Court could rule that federal judges should consider claims that a state's lethal injection causes cruel and unusual punishment.

Also yesterday, the court, led by Roberts, ruled that the government must make extra efforts to notify a homeowner before it sells off property for unpaid taxes.

The Constitution says the state may not take away a person's property "without due process of law," and Roberts said that means that officials "must take additional reasonable steps" to contact an owner before taking his property.

The ruling in an Arkansas dispute applies to all levels of government, from the Internal Revenue Service to local tax collectors.

The chief justice split with the court's most conservative justices and with Bush administration lawyers, who said that sending a letter was all that was required of the government, even if it was not delivered.

The 5-3 decision is a victory for an Arkansas man who lost his house several years after he had paid off the mortgage. When his ex-wife failed to pay property taxes, the state moved to seize and sell the house.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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