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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Mississippi high Court: Execution plans can be kept secret

Mississippi's death chamber
Mississippi's death chamber
Mississippi does not have to publicly disclose details of how it carries out executions, the state's highest court ruled Thursday.

In a 7-2 decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center that argued the state's corrections department hadn't disclosed enough information in response to a 2014 public records request.

A chancery judge had ordered more information disclosed, but the state appealed. Last year, while the appeal was still pending, legislators changed the law, joining states nationwide in shielding drug purchases and other execution methods from public disclosure. 

The state argues that releasing names of drug suppliers could allow death penalty opponents to terminate the supply using public pressure. States have had increasing trouble obtaining execution drugs because some pharmaceutical makers don't want their medicines used for that purpose.

MacArthur Center lawyer Jim Craig disputes that disclosure is a threat, saying it's important to have a full accounting of where Mississippi is getting its death penalty drugs and how it plans to use them. "There's no threat against any of these pharmacies," Craig said Thursday. "There's no economic threat; there's no physical threat. And across the country this is just being used as a dodge to prevent people from knowing where these dollars are going."

Presiding Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph wrote in Thursday's decision that the judges must apply the new law to the pre-existing dispute, because lawmakers didn't carve out an exception for ongoing requests and lawsuits.

"This court chooses to follow the law as set forth by the Legislature," Randolph wrote.

Craig said the decision could encourage agencies to run out the clock on public record requests. "It's disturbing that a state agency can delay responding to a records request for public records for a period of years, while they seek to change the statute to block production of the records requested," he said.

Associated Justice Leslie King, in his dissent, said the court's delay in deciding the case undermined Craig.

"This court, by the dilatory manner in which it has disposed of this case, has either wittingly or unwittingly allowed its actions to be impacted by legislative actions," King wrote.

He said the court should have allowed Craig's case to proceed as if the law hadn't changed.

Source: Associated Press, April 14, 2017

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