LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court struck down Arkansas' law on executions Friday, ruling the Legislature gave too much deference to the executive branch in choosing the concoction used to put prisoners to death.
LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court struck down Arkansas’ law on executions Friday, ruling the Legislature gave too much deference to the executive branch in choosing the concoction used to put prisoners to death.
In a 5-2 decision, the court said the law violates the separation-of-powers doctrine of the Arkansas Constitution in giving to prison officials the discretion to decide what chemicals are used to administer lethal injections.
In 2009 the Legislature passed an amendment to the state’s execution law that, among other things, named some chemicals that “may” be used in the lethal injection process but also said the process could include “any other chemical or chemicals,” at the discretion of the director of the state Department of Correction.
Death-row inmate Jack Harold Jones filed a lawsuit challenging the law in 2010, and nine other condemned prisoners later joined the suit. They argued that ?the law violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.
The Supreme Court on Friday upheld Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s ruling from August that the lethal-injection provision of the law is unconstitutional.
“It is evident to this court that the Legislature has abdicated its responsibility and passed to the executive branch, in this case the ADC, the unfettered discretion to determine all protocol and procedures, most notably the chemicals to be used, for a state execution,” Justice Jim Gunter wrote for the majority.
Fox’s ruling struck the phrase “any other chemical or chemicals” from the law, but the Supreme Court overturned that part of his ruling, saying that the law could not be made constitutional simply by striking one phrase.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Karen Baker said Legislature did not abdicate its responsibility. She said the law establishes that the manner of execution in Arkansas is lethal injection and properly gives prison officials discretion in determining how to carry out the law.
She noted court rulings in other states have upheld similar laws.
“Further, appellants’ discretion is not ‘unfettered’ because they are at all times bound by the constraints of our federal and state constitutions against cruel and unusual punishment,” Baker wrote.
Special Justice Byron Freeland, a Little Rock attorney who was appointed to hear the case after Justice Donald Corbin recused, joined in the dissent.
No executions are pending in the state, in part because of legal challenges like the Jones lawsuit. The state last executed a prisoner in 2005.
Gov. Mike Beebe said through a spokeswoman Friday that the ruling did not strike down lethal injection as the state’s manner of executing condemned prisoners, but it did create a need for the Legislature to write a new law governing the process.
“The death penalty is still the law in Arkansas, but the Department of Correction now has no legal way to carry out an execution until a new statute is established,” said Beebe spokeswoman Stacey Hall.
Hall said Beebe had no plans to call a special session. The next regular session convenes in January.
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said Friday that McDaniel respected the court’s decision and would talk with prison officials “about how to move forward in the light of this decision.”
Little Rock lawyer Jeff Rosenzweig, who is representing Jones, said of the ruling, “We’re gratified by it. It was the proper ruling to make, considering what the Legislature had done in passing the bill in ‘09.”
Rosenzweig said it appears the state will not be able to execute any prisoners until a new execution statute is in place.
Dina Tyler, spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction, said Arkansas is still a lethal-injection state, “but what has to be adjusted are the mechanics for us carrying out what we’re required to do.”
“The Legislature does meet in January, and we can make adjustments,” she said.