A series of federal executions that were set to begin on Monday will remain on hold, the Supreme Court said on Friday.
The court’s order is a loss for the Trump administration, which announced last July that it would reinstate the federal death penalty after a nearly two-decade lapse.
The Supreme Court denied the government’s request to wipe away a lower court opinion that held inmates were likely to succeed in their argument that the new protocol conflicted with federal law.
In Friday’s brief order, the Supreme Court said it expects that the lower court will work with “appropriate dispatch” to issue a final opinion in the case.
Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh wrote separately to say they agreed with the court’s decision but that they thought the lower court should be able to decide the case within the next 60 days.
“While we are disappointed with the ruling, we will argue the case on its merits in the D.C. Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. “The Department of Justice is committed to upholding the rule of law and to carrying forward sentences imposed by our justice system.”
An attorney for one of the inmates praised the ruling.
“The courts have made clear that the government cannot rush executions in order to evade judicial review of the legality and constitutionality of the new execution procedure,” said lawyer Shawn Nolan.
Attorney General William Barr revived the use of the federal death penalty in July in a move that underscored the stark law and order philosophy of the Trump administration. At the time he directed the head of the Bureau of Prisons to execute five inmates he said represented the “worst criminals.”
The Bureau of Prisons adopted a new lethal injection protocol consisting of a single drug, pentobarbital.
The five federal inmates ordered to be executed are Daniel Lewis Lee, for murdering a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl; Lezmond Mitchell, for murdering a 63-year-old and her 9-year-old granddaughter; Wesley Ira Purkey, for raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl; Alfred Bourgeois, for torturing and killing his own 2-year-old daughter; Dustin Lee Honken, for shooting and killing five people, including two young girls.
Lawyers for the inmates filed an immediate appeal, challenging not the constitutionality of their executions but instead arguing that the government’s new lethal injections protocol is unlawful.
A district judge blocked the executions from going forward, holding that the protocol conflicts with the Federal Death Penalty Act, which requires adherence to a state’s method of execution.
The judge put the executions on hold, ruling that a delay would not hurt the government, particularly because it has waited several years to announce a new protocol.
US District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia said the public interest is not served by “executing individuals before they have had the opportunity to avail themselves of legitimate procedures to challenge the legality of their executions.”
“While the government does have a legitimate interest in the finality of criminal proceedings,” Chutkan held, the time it took to establish a new protocol “undermines its arguments regarding the urgency and weight of that interest.”
A federal appeals court rejected the government’s request to put the district court ruling on hold.
In papers filed with the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Noel Francisco highlighted the severity of the crimes and noted that the inmates had “exhausted all permissible appeals.” In addition, the government said it had spent months preparing for the executions, calling it a “major logistical undertaking that requires mobilizing personnel, coordinating with the victims’ families, providing security and preparing the drug protocol.”
“Acting on behalf of the public and the victims, the United States has an overwhelming interest in the timely enforcement of the death sentence handed down by an impartial jury and upheld by every reviewing court,” Francisco argued.