Supreme Court refuses to block federal executions
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday refused to block the execution of four federal prison inmates who are scheduled to be put to death in July and August.
The executions would mark the first use of the death penalty on the federal level since 2003.
The justices rejected an appeal from four inmates who were convicted of killing children. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor noted that they would have blocked the executions from going forward.
The court’s action leaves no obstacles standing in the way of the executions, the first of which is scheduled for July 13.
The inmates are separately asking a federal judge in Washington to impose a new delay on their executions over other legal issues that have yet to be resolved.
The activity at the high court came after Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions. Three of the men had been scheduled to be put to death when Barr first announced the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain.
“The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a statement last month. “The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws. We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
The federal government’s initial effort was put on hold by a trial judge after the inmates challenged the new execution procedures, and the federal appeals court in Washington and the Supreme Court both declined to step in late last year. But in April, the appeals court threw out the judge’s order.
The federal prison in Indiana where the executions would take place, USP Terre Haute, has struggled to combat the coronavirus pandemic behind bars. One inmate there has died from COVID-19.
The inmates scheduled for execution are: Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old; Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman; Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children; and Keith Dwayne Nelson, who kidnapped a 10-year-old girl who was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raped her in a forest behind a church before strangling the young girl with a wire.
Three of the executions — for Lee, Purkley and Honken — are scheduled days apart beginning July 13. Nelson’s execution is scheduled for Aug. 28. The Justice Department said additional executions will be set at a later date.
Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Lee, decried the federal death penalty as “arbitrary, racially-biased, and rife with poor lawyering and junk science.”
“Despite these problems, and even as people across the country are demanding that leaders rethink crime, punishment, and justice, the government is barreling ahead with its plans to carry out the first federal executions in 17 years,” Friedman said in a statement. “Given the unfairness built into the federal death penalty system and the many unanswered questions about both the cases of the men scheduled to die and the government’s new execution protocol, there must be appropriate court review before the government can proceed with any execution.”
Purkey’s lawyers separately filed court papers last week asking a federal judge to halt his execution, arguing that he isn’t mentally fit to be executed because he suffers from “advancing Alzheimer’s disease and deteriorating cognitive functioning.” The lawyers argue that Purkey doesn’t understand why the government plans to execute him and that he believes it is retaliation for many complaints about conditions in the federal prison system.
Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
Supreme Court declines to hear border wall challenge
The Supreme Court is leaving in place a decision that rejected environmental groups’ challenge to sections of wall the Trump administration is building along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The high court on Monday declined to hear an appeal involving construction of 145 miles (233 kilometers) of steel-bollard walls along the border in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Southwest Environmental Center had challenged a federal law that allows the secretary of Homeland Security to waive any laws necessary to allow the quick construction of border fencing. The groups had argued that violates the Constitution’s separation of powers. But a lower court dismissed the case.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has weighed in on border wall construction during the Trump administration. Last year, the high court gave the administration the go-ahead to tap billions of dollars in Pentagon funds to replace barriers along the border with Mexico in Arizona, California and New Mexico with more robust fencing.
Court makes it easier for president to remove CFPB head
The Supreme Court on Monday made it easier for the president to fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The justices struck down restrictions Congress had written on when the president can remove the bureau’s director.
“The agency may … continue to operate, but its Director, in light of our decision, must be removable by the President at will,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
The court’s five conservative justices agreed that restrictions Congress imposed on when the president can fire the agency’s director violated the Constitution. But they disagreed on what to do as a result. Roberts and fellow conservative justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh said the restrictions could be stricken from the law. The court’s four liberals agreed, though they disagreed the restrictions were improper.
The decision doesn’t have a big impact on the current head of the agency. Kathy Kraninger, who was nominated to her current post by the president in 2018, had said she believed the president could fire her at any time.
Under the Dodd-Frank Act that created the agency in response to the 2008 financial crisis, the CFPB’s director is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term. The law had said the president could only remove a director for “inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.” That structure could leave a new president with a director chosen by the previous president for some or all of the new president’s time in office. The Trump administration had argued that the restrictions improperly limit the power of the president.
“We hold that the CFPB’s leadership by a single individual removable only for inefficiency, neglect, or malfeasance violates the separation of powers,” Roberts wrote.
Defenders of the law’s removal provision had argued the restrictions insulated the agency’s head from presidential pressure.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for herself and three liberal colleagues, called the majority opinion simplistic.
“What does the Constitution say about the separation of powers—and particularly about the President’s removal authority? (Spoiler alert: about the latter, nothing at all.) The majority offers the civics class version of separation of powers—call it the Schoolhouse Rock definition of the phrase,” she said, referencing the educational, animated short films.
“Today’s decision wipes out a feature of that agency its creators thought fundamental to its mission—a measure of independence from political pressure. I respectfully dissent,” Kagan wrote.
The CFPB was the brainchild of Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.
After the ruling, Warren wrote in a series of tweets that the Supreme Court had “handed over more power to Wall Street’s army of lawyers and lobbyists to push out a director who fights for the American people.” But, she said that even after the ruling the CFPB is “still an independent agency.”
“The director of that agency still works for the American people. Not Donald Trump. Not Congress. Not the banking industry. Nothing in the Supreme Court ruling changes that,” Warren wrote.
The case is Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 19-7.
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