The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favor of a death row inmate in Georgia who is challenging the state’s lethal injection protocol and seeks to die by firing squad — a method not currently authorized in the state.
The court said the inmate could bring the challenge under a federal civil rights law that allows individuals to seek remedies when their Constitutional rights are violated. The decision could make it easier for inmates to challenge their potential execution method.
The 5-4 majority opinion was written by Justice Elena Kagan, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett penning a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.
Kagan said that the law at issue, Section 1983, “broadly authorizes suit against state officials for the deprivation of any rights secured by the Constitution.”
“Read literally,” she said, “that language would apply to all of a prisoner’s constitutional claims.”
Barrett, in her dissent, countered: “An inmate can use §1983 actions to challenge many, if not most, aspects of prison administration. But when a challenge would prevent a State from enforcing a conviction or sentence, the more rigorous, federalism-protective requirements of habeas apply.”
Although Barrett noted that she “understand[s] the impulse” for prisoners to use civil rights suits rather than habeas petitions to bring such claims given the obstacles to the latter, she concluded that the proper forum for such challenges are state, rather than federal, courts.
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