SCOTUS addresses the death penalty... sort of

The Supreme Court took up the issue of capital punishment in a Friday night ruling, though only in a tangential way. The court halted the planned Alabama execution of Willie B. Smith III. Smith, 51, was convicted of a 1991 murder where he stole $80 from a woman, took her to a cemetery and shot her in the back of the head with a shotgun. In a bit of a twist in the history of SCOTUS rulings in this area, the court wasn’t arguing that Smith couldn’t be executed. The objection arose from Alabama’s policy of making spiritual advisers observe the execution through a window from a room adjacent to the execution chamber. Smith had wanted his pastor to be in the room with him at the end. In a rare case of both liberal and conservative justices agreeing, the court sided with Smith. (Associated Press)

The Supreme Court is sending a message to states that want to continue to carry out the death penalty: Inmates must be allowed to have a spiritual adviser by their side as they are executed.

The high court around midnight Thursday declined to let Alabama proceed with the lethal injection of Willie B. Smith III. Smith had objected to Alabama’s policy that his pastor would have had to observe his execution from an adjacent room rather than the death chamber itself.

The order from the high court follows two years in which inmates saw some rare success in bringing challenges based on the issue of chaplains in the death chamber. This time, liberal and conservative members of the court normally in disagreement over death penalty issues found common ground not on the death penalty itself but on the issue of religious freedom and how the death penalty is carried out.

We’re not sure exactly how every member voted on this one. It was either another five-to-four decision, or a six-to-three split, but not along ideological lines. Elena Kagan wrote the majority decision for herself, Breyer, and Sotomayor, but also for Amy Coney Barrett. (There’s a combination I didn’t expect to see.) Kavanaugh wrote the dissent for himself and Clarence Thomas, along with Cheif Justice Roberts, all of whom would have allowed the execution to proceed without the pastor in the room. That means that either Gorsuch or Alito (possibly both) sided with the liberals in halting the execution.

This ruling isn’t all that earthshaking in terms of whether or not Willie Smith will meet his Maker. Alabama just needs to change its rules to allow spiritual advisers in the chamber and they’ll be able to proceed. We also shouldn’t take this as some signal that the liberal justices are suddenly in favor of the death penalty. There were not asked to rule on whether or not Smith deserved clemency. They were only deciding whether or not the rule barring the pastor from the execution chamber was supportable.

Similarly, we shouldn’t infer that Amy Coney Barrett is opposed to capital punishment for the same reason. Perhaps the most interesting marker in this result is the fact that John Roberts signed on with Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas. If he had been looking for some way to take a more “moderate” stance on issues of capital punishment, he could have used the Freedom of Religion angle to send a signal by siding with the justices putting a pause on the execution.

Joe Biden has already indicated that he wants to end federal executions, so there may not be any more cases for the SCOTUS justices to hear at that level. But unless a new federal ban on the death penalty is coming, the states that still engage in the practice will no doubt keep the Supreme Court busy with appeals.