On Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling in the ongoing litigation over lethal injection in the Tarheel State. (Opinion available here.) To be clear, last week’s decision did not open the floodgates for executions to resume in North Carolina. The Court simply ruled that death-sentenced inmates cannot file a lawsuit in administrative court challenging the Council of State’s decision to approve the lethal injection protocol – inmates remain free to challenge the Council’s actions in other types of courts.
North Carolina is unique in that it requires the method of execution to first be mapped out by the Warden of Central Prison and then green-lighted by the Council of State, a group of executive branch elected officials. The issue in this case arose when the Council refused to hear from representatives for the inmates before approving the lethal injection protocol. The inmates alleged that in doing do, the Council did not follow proper procedure under the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Court’s decision here turned on whether the Council of State is subject to the APA. The Supreme Court ruled that because of the Council’s unique position in state government, the APA cannot be applied when the Council reviews a lethal injection protocol.
Although it ruled that the condemned have no right to contribute to the Council of State’s decision-making process, the Court specifically noted that the inmates’ other concerns about the protocol could be addressed by state and federal courts. What remains to be decided is the core issue of whether the lethal injection protocol in North Carolina complies with laws regarding cruel and unusual punishment.
As a practical matter, even if the protocol were to be approved by the courts, actually executing someone would require a drug of which there is a worldwide shortage at the moment. (More on that here and here.) The Court’s decision may have closed the door on administrative remedies, but it has not reopened the door to the execution chamber.