Arkansas attorney general, governor vows to pursue executions

By Steve Barnes
| LITTLE ROCK, Ark.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. Arkansas’ attorney general and governor are vowing to pursue a series of executions scheduled over the next two weeks even after the state’s Supreme Court halted the first two lethal injections hours before they were to take place.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she will continue to seek justice for the families of victims and pursue two executions scheduled for Thursday, a pair set for April 24 and one planned for April 27.

“I will continue to respond to any and all legal challenges brought by the prisoners,” she said in a statement late on Monday. “The families have waited far too long to see justice, and I will continue to make that a priority.”

Rutledge’s statement came moments after the U.S. Supreme Court denied her request to vacate a stay issued by the Arkansas Supreme Court on the execution that was scheduled on Monday for Don Davis, sentenced to die for the 1990 slaying of Jane Daniel, 62, during a home burglary.

The legal fight in Arkansas, which last put someone to death 12 years ago, came after the number of U.S. executions fell to a quarter-century low in 2016. Capital punishment in several states was stymied by problems with lethal-injection drugs and legal questions over their protocols.

Davis and fellow inmate Bruce Ward, both of whom have spent more than 20 years on death row, were scheduled to die on Monday night before the Arkansas Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, stayed the executions after their lawyers raised questions about their mental competency.

Rutledge’s office declined to challenge the stay ordered for Ward.

“While this has been an exhausting day for all involved, tomorrow we will continue to fight back on last minute appeals and efforts to block justice for the victimsā€™ families,” said Governor Asa Hutchinson in a statement.

In a separate ruling on Monday, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis overruled a lower court decision that had blocked the state’s original plan to put eight inmates to death.

On April 6, U.S. District Judge J.P. Marshall halted one of the executions, saying the expedited schedule did not allow proper time for considering clemency for inmate Jason McGehee, who is one of the inmates set to die on April 27.

Critics have contended that Arkansas’ rush to the death chamber was reckless. The state has said it had to act quickly because one of the drugs in its difficult-to-obtain lethal injection mix, the valium-like sedative midazolam, expires at the end of April.

Attorneys for the eight were likely to appeal the federal appeals court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. They filed a separate petition for stays on Monday with the U.S. Supreme Court over a procedural matter.

The state also argued that U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker abused her discretion on Saturday when she ruled about potential harm from midazolam.

The drug has been used in flawed executions in Oklahoma and Arizona. Critics contend it does not put a person in a deep enough state of unconsciousness and should not be used in executions.

In 2014, Oklahoma was the last state to try carrying out two executions on the same night, an effort that went awry. Texas conducted the last successful dual executions in the United States in 2000.

For a graphic on executions in the U.S., click here

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)

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Trump appointee Gorsuch energetic in first U.S. high court arguments

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON President Donald Trump’s appointee Neil Gorsuch on Monday showed himself to be a frequent and energetic questioner during U.S. Supreme Court arguments in his first day hearing cases as a justice, at one point even apologizing for talking too much.

Gorsuch, whose confirmation to the lifetime job restored the court’s conservative majority, exhibited composure and confidence, sitting on the far right of the bench in the ornate courtroom, alongside liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He appeared relaxed, gingerly sipping from a disposable coffee cup.

The justices, with the exception of the usually silent Clarence Thomas, are known for their aggressive questioning, and Gorsuch showed no qualms about jumping right in. Eight times during the course of three one-hour arguments Gorsuch peppered attorneys with a series of pointed questions.

The court had its full complement of nine justices, five conservatives and four liberals, for arguments for the first time since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February 2016.

Gorsuch formally joined the Supreme Court on April 10 after being confirmed three days earlier by the Republican-led Senate over broad Democratic opposition.

The Coloradoan came across as temperamentally different from the sometimes hard-edged New Yorker Scalia, offering respectful but firm questioning even when the lawyer facing his queries seemed evasive.

“I’m sorry for interrupting, counselor,” Gorsuch told one of the lawyers in the second case, a property dispute from New York state. “If you would just answer my question, I would be grateful.”

In the first case, an employment dispute, Gorsuch grilled lawyer Christopher Landau, who represented a man claiming he was discriminated against by the U.S. Census Bureau, over the fine points of a law governing civil service employees.

“I’m sorry for taking up so much time, I apologize,” Gorsuch said after his first lengthy exchange, sitting back in his high-backed chair and smiling.

‘OUR COMMON CALLING’

Chief Justice John Roberts welcomed Gorsuch to the court before oral arguments began. “Justice Gorsuch, we wish you a long and happy career in our common calling,” Roberts said.

Gorsuch responded by thanking his new colleagues for their “warm welcome.”

Gorsuch asked a string of questions about complicated federal law. As he indicated during his Senate confirmation hearing last month, his line of inquiry focused on the text of a statute, an approach also embraced by Scalia and other conservative jurists.

“Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if we followed the plain text of the statute? What am I missing?” Gorsuch asked government lawyer Brian Fletcher in the employment case.

When Fletcher responded that he could give reasons for his interpretation, Gorsuch appeared unsatisfied. “Not reasons. Where in the language?” he asked, referring to the statute.

The second case involved whether a developer can intervene in a lawsuit brought by a property owner against the town of Chester, New York over its refusal to give him permission to build on his land.

One of the lawyers in the case, Neal Katyal, was a familiar face to Gorsuch, having heartily endorsed his nomination, even testifying at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. Katyal, who served as acting solicitor general in Democratic former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, represented the town.

Gorsuch sparred with a lawyer for a developer hoping to build on the land but did not directly engage with Katyal.

The third case involved a dispute over whether certain securities class-action lawsuits can be barred because they were filed too late.

Gorsuch, who at 49 could remain on the court for decades, served for a decade on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before Trump nominated him in January. Trump was able to fill Scalia’s vacancy only because Senate Republicans last year refused to consider Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

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