Averting a constitutional standoff, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday dissolved its own stay of execution for two inmates and reversed a lower court’s ruling that had found the state’s execution secrecy law unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s action apparently clears the way for the state to execute both Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner on Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The court had differed with the state Court of Criminal Appeals over whether it had jurisdiction to stay the executions.
Both executions were ordered stayed indefinitely by a divided state Supreme Court on Monday. The court argued that it needed time to consider appeals of a lower court's ruling that the state's execution-secrecy law is unconstitutional.
The opinion issued late Wednesday says the court has conducted that review and reversed Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish’s ruling that the state’s execution secrecy law is unconstitutional. The opinion notes that attorneys for Lockett and Warner have been informed of the drugs and dosages to be used in their executions.
The state’s law withholding of the identities of the drugs’ suppliers and the people administering the drugs does not bar the inmates’ right of access to the courts, the opinion states. The opinion states that the stays issued by the Supreme Court for Lockett and Warner on Monday are dissolved.
Saying the state's highest court exceeded its authority in granting stays to the two inmates, Gov. Mary Fallin had issued a seven-day stay of execution for Lockett on Tuesday. Fallin's office said it plans to execute both men on the same day next week, Tuesday.
"While I have great respect for the honorable men and women of the Supreme Court, this attempted stay of execution is outside the constitutional authority of that body," Fallin stated in her executive order. "I cannot give effect to the Order by that Honorable Court and remain consistent with my oath of office to uphold the Constitution."
Fallin's order directs the state attorney general "to seek specific guidance from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals" regarding Lockett's execution.
Under the state constitution, the Court of Criminal Appeals is the state's highest court for criminal cases. The Supreme Court generally has jurisdiction over civil matters, including whether state laws are constitutional.
The Supreme Court has never issued an execution stay in the past, but the court noted in its opinion Monday that it had "sole power" to determine which court has jurisdiction to issue a stay.
Lockett was convicted of the 1999 shooting death of Stephanie Neiman of Perry during a botched home-invasion robbery. Warner was convicted of the rape and murder of his roommate's 11-month-old daughter in Oklahoma County in 1997.
The inmates are not challenging their convictions but are challenging a state law that allows Oklahoma to withhold information about drugs used in executions. That law was enacted in 2011 to shield drug suppliers who did not want to be publicly linked to the death penalty.
As states have scrambled to respond to shortages of execution drugs, they have come up with new combinations that some experts say can lead to pain and suffering during the process. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments," leaving it up to the courts to determine what punishments are cruel or unusual.
Justices in both state appeals courts have been deeply divided over the matter.
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 Monday to issue the stays, saying it was forced to do so because the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had declined to issue a stay. That appeals court had voted 3-2 to deny the stay request.
In a dissent to the Supreme Court's majority opinion granting stays in the case, Justice Steven Taylor stated: "We have never been here before, and we have no jurisdiction to be here now."
The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling states that it began review of the case on March 11 when the inmates filed an appeal. The state filed its appeal Friday on behalf of the Department of Corrections.
"In view of the gravity of the case, review of the record has been expedited and has been completed in 43 days," the ruling states.
It states that there was no need for Parrish to declare the secrecy law unconstitutional for the inmates to discover the identity of the drugs to be used to execute them.
"The record indicates that the inmates have been provided with the identity of the drug or drugs to be used in the executions and with the dosages to be injected. The inmates have not demonstrated actual prejudice with respect to a contemplated Eighth Amendment claim challenging their sentence. This court holds that the secrecy provision ... does not violate the inmates' constitutional right of access to the courts."
Seven justices concurred in the opinion, while two others, Steven Taylor and James Winchester, concurred in the result. Both had previously voted against the majority in issuing a stay in the case.
"I remain committed to my previous votes in this case," Winchester noted in Wednesday's ruling. "However, since the Supreme Court has determined to address the drug secrecy issue, I concur in the result."
Taylor, who has strongly dissented from the court's past actions in the case, issued a separate statement concurring in the court's decision to dissolve the stay.
"I must express my concern for the sixth time with this court exercising jurisdiction in this criminal matter and not transferring all the issues to the Court of Criminal Appeals. I warned this Court in my previous dissents against crossing the Rubicon and now that crossing has caused a quagmire."
Taylor called the inmates' lawsuit seeking information about the execution process "frivolous and a complete waste of time and resources of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma."
"The plaintiffs have no more right to the information they requested than if they were being executed in the electric chair, they would have no right to know whether OG&E or PSO were providing the electricity," Taylor's opinion states.
"If they were being hanged, they would have no right to know whether it be by cotton or nylon rope; or if they were being executed by firing squad, they would have no right to know whether it be by Winchester or Remington ammunition. I hope that this case ends any thought of future journeys down this path that led the Court to this day. It is also my hope that this Court never again crosses the Rubicon."