Arkansas Supreme Court rules state's lethal injection law as constitutional


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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to a small business association in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, March 19, 2015. The governor later said he was happy with the Arkansas Supreme Court's decision Thursday to uphold the state's lethal injection law as constitutional. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

FILE - In this July 30, 1997, file photo, a television camera mounted on the ceiling of a witness room is pointed toward the death chamber at Cummins Prison in Varner, Ark. The Arkansas Supreme Court Thursday, March 19, 2015, upheld the state's lethal injection law as constitutional. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas' highest court on Thursday ruled that the state's lethal injection law is constitutional, removing a major roadblock to resuming executions that have been effectively on hold in the state for nearly a decade.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, reversed Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell's Griffen's ruling that the 2013 law gave the state Correction Department too much leeway to decide what drugs to use and how they should be administered. Griffen had ruled in a lawsuit brought by nine death row inmates.

"The delegation of authority contained within Act 139 is not unfettered and is bounded by reasonable guidelines from the Legislature," Justice Karen Baker wrote in the court's ruling. "Therefore we reverse the circuit court's conclusion that Act 139 is unconstitutional."

The law specified that the state kill inmates by using a barbiturate, but left it up to the state Department of Correction to decide which one to use.

Arkansas has 32 inmates on death row, but hasn't executed an inmate since 2005. Legal challenges and a shortage of drugs used in lethal injections have effectively put the death penalty on hold.

Federal agents in 2011 seized Arkansas' execution drugs amid questions about their British supplier. In 2013, Arkansas said it had enough lorazepam and phenobarbital to execute prisoners under a protocol in place at the time, but the Correction Department is currently rewriting its execution plan and there's no guarantee the drugs will be on a new approved-drug list.

Executions could also be further delayed by inmate challenges based on other grounds, which are all on different timetables.

"There is still work to be done but this was a big hurdle," Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters after the ruling

The last inmate executed was Eric Nance, who was put to death for killing and attempting to rape a Malvern teenager. An attorney for the inmates declined comment.

The Arkansas Department of Correction referred questions to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who said she was pleased with the ruling.

"I am hopeful that this decision will allow the convictions of those on death row to move forward so that some closure and justice is brought to the families of the victims," Rutledge, a Republican who was elected last year, said in a statement.

Hutchinson, a Republican, said he supported a bill that would make secret the supplier of the drugs the state uses for executions.

The Legislature rewrote the state's lethal injection law a year after the state Supreme Court struck down an earlier version of the law, also on grounds that legislators gave too much discretion to the Correction Department.

In a dissenting opinion, three justices said the Legislature delegated its authority to another branch of government by not specifying which type of barbiturate should be used in execution.

"As it now stands, the (Arkansas Department of Correction), not the General Assembly, will decide fundamental questions regarding how a sentence of death will be carried out," Justice Robin Wynne wrote in the dissenting opinion.

Justices agreed with the part of Griffen's decision in which he ruled the 2013 law applied to the inmates, even though they were convicted and sentenced before it took effect.

The latest decision comes as lawmakers near the end of a legislative session that's been marked by renewed debate over the death penalty. A Senate panel last month endorsed a proposal to abolish the death penalty, but the sponsor of the measure said he won't ask for a full vote in the Senate since it's likely to fail.

A lawmaker whose 12-year-old daughter was murdered by a man now on death row, meanwhile, has proposed using firing squads for executions. Rep. Rebecca Petty, R-Rogers, said Thursday she is encouraged by the court decision and is unsure whether she will run her bill.

Associated Press Writers Allen Reed and Kelly P. Kissel contributed to this report.

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