Appeals Court Rejects DOJ Request to Resume Executions

December 2, 2019 Updated: December 3, 2019

A federal appeals court reportedly rejected the Trump administration’s plans to resume the death penalty at the federal level following a 16-year hiatus, although the White House has signaled it is prepared to take its fight to the Supreme Court.

The three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) request to overturn a judge’s decision to temporarily stall the execution of four convicted killers. The first execution was slated for Dec. 9.

The circuit court judges who issued the order were Judith W. Rogers, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton; Thomas B. Griffith, appointed by former President George W. Bush; and Neomi Rao, who had been appointed by President Donald Trump, the Washington Post reported.

“We are gratified that the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that there is no basis to vacate the preliminary injunction in this case,” Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys representing several of the inmates who were set to die, told the paper.

He added, “The courts have made clear that the government cannot rush executions in order to avoid judicial review of the legality and constitutionality of its new execution procedure.”

Last month, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia issued an injunction to block the federal executions. She said the inmates’ legal challenges need to be completed first.

Attorney General William Barr on Nov. 22 said he is prepared to take the fight to the Supreme Court.

“There are people who would say these kinds of delays are not fair to the victims, so we can move forward with our first group,” Barr told The Associated Press.

The last federal execution took place in 2003. Since then, protracted litigation over the drugs historically used in lethal injection executions prevented the government from continuing the practice.

The lawsuits challenging federal lethal injections, the first of which was filed in 2005, challenged the protocol on the grounds that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment by carrying a risk of severe pain. The suits also said the protocol violated a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act because it was written in secret without public input.

Under Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, the Justice Department abandoned its previous three-drug protocol due to a shortage of one of them, an anesthetic called sodium thiopental. The legal fight fell dormant during Obama’s tenure but was revived in July.

Barr scheduled the executions of five inmates for December and January and unveiled a new protocol that involved using a single drug, pentobarbital, for lethal injections.

Reuters contributed to this report.