A Supreme Court ruled the government would allow a federal prisoner to be sentenced to death – a lower court overturned an order that hanged him on Friday night. Within hours of 6-3 Rai, 48-year-old Dustin Higgs was given a lethal injection and pronounced dead.
The majority position, which pushed for the use of the death penalty, did not sit well with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
In a fierce dissent, he mentions that, 17 years later, without a single federal execution, the government had killed twelve people since July. He then listed each of them by name. “Today Dustin Higgs will be thirteenth,” she wrote.
What Sotomayor called an “unprecedented rush of federal executions” meant that the federal government would have killed more than three times as many people as it had in the previous six decades. “
Sotomayor was blunt in his assessment of the majority opinion: “This is not justice.”
In 2001, a federal court in Maryland sentenced Higgs to death for his role in the abduction and murder of three women. Because Maryland revoked the death penalty in 2013, the government sought to sentence him to death in Indiana, where he was imprisoned. After a district court rejected the government’s request, the government moved its case to the Court of Appeal for the 4 circuits. For January 27, 2021, the Court of Appeal held an oral debate. Not wanting to wait long, the government asked the Supreme Court to withdraw the lower court’s order without any general briefing or pleading. The majority opinion of the High Court allowed him to do so.
In his dissent, Sotomayor was troubled by the fact that the government sidelined the Court of Appeal, as well as uncertainty surrounding the use of the new lethal injection cocktail.
Citing a record number of executions under the Trump presidency, Sotomayor said she referred to “this speedy spree of execution”.
“This court has consistently rejected credible claims of relief for prisoners. This court has even intervened to lift the ban imposed by lower courts, to ensure that these prisoner challenges never get a meaningful air. “” The court made these decisions in response to emergency applications, with little opportunity for proper briefing and consideration, often within a few days or a few hours. “
“There can be no justice on the fly in matters of life and death”
Sotomayor, 66, of Puerto Rican descent, was appointed by President Obama to the Supreme Court in 2009. During the past several years, she has emerged as an intense critic of actions by the Trump administration – as well as decisions by her colleagues. She has warned her fellow judges about doing special favors for the Trump administration, and has issued unfounded disagreements in matters involving everything from DACA to Kovid-19 relief.
In an institution known for extreme reserve, Sotomayor’s opinions are notable for their clarity at times. His roll call of the names of the people killed by the government can often be seen as a remembrance of the “say their names” campaigns put up in cases of police brutality. Likewise, his criticism of the Court’s “hanging timetable” can be seen as a rebuke of those judges who consider themselves supporters of life.
“There can be no justice on the fly in matters of life and death”, Sotomayor wrote, he saw as insufficient investigation given the cases of 13 people executed by the Trump administration. “Those whom the government executes during this effort are more qualified than this court.”
President-elect Joe Biden opposes the federal death penalty, while a 2020 Gallup poll found that US support for the death penalty is lower than at any point in nearly five decades.
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