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Supreme Court ends term with rulings on EPA, voter redistricting and lethal injection

The Supreme Court ended a dramatic session with high-profile rulings on three issues: how the EPA regulates air pollution, how to map voting lines and the death penalty by lethal injection. Judy Woodruff learns more from Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.

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    The U.S. Supreme Court closed out a dramatic session today with three more high-profile decisions. The latest rulings touched on how the Environmental Protection Agency regulates our air, how to map voting lines and how states carry out the death penalty.

    Justices also put on hold a Texas law that was set to close a number of clinics that perform abortions in the state this week.

    And joining me to discuss it all is our hardworking court expert, Marcia Coyle, with "The National Law Journal."

    No shortage. They went out — they're going out with a bang. Let's put it that way.

  • MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal:

    They absolutely are, Judy.


    So, let's start with this Texas decision. This was an emergency appeal that the court granted this afternoon to block the state of Texas from immediately imposing these stricter regulations on abortion clinics. What was happening here?



    A lower federal court had ruled against the Whole Women's Health clinic and other abortion clinics in Texas in their challenge to the Texas law, which requires the clinic to meet all the standards of ambulatory surgical facilities, which the clinics claim they are not, and also that their physicians have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the clinic.

    This is a temporary delay to allow the clinics to file what we call a petition for cert, their appeal of that lower court decision. Four justices would have allowed the lower court's decision to go into effect immediately, the chief justice and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito.

    July 1 was the deadline. That's when the lower court decision was to take effect. So, it's now on hold. The appeals by the clinics have not yet been filed in the Supreme Court.


    So this gives some time to those who didn't want this to happen.




    So, Marcia, let's turn now to the decisions that were handed out this morning that we knew might be coming today, starting with the one to uphold the right of Oklahoma to use this controversial drug as part of their lethal injection execution.

    This case we are seeing revealed a sharp divide among the justices about the death penalty itself. And I'm going to ask you about this. And I want to first read two of the comments made by the justices in their opinions. In the majority, Justice Alito said — quote — "Because some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, we have held that the Constitution doesn't require the avoidance of all risk of pain. After all, while most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune."

    Now, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in the dissent, writing a dissent, said — quote — "Rather than try to patch up the death penalty's legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for a full briefing on a more basic question, whether the death penalty violates the Constitution. I believe that it is now time to reopen the question."


    Judy, we had two things going on here today. And, by the way, this was a 5-4 decision. And the death penalty often divides the Supreme Court.

    The first thing that was going on was the challenge to this drug, midazolam. It's a sedative. And Oklahoma and a few other states have turned to it as the first drug in a three-drug protocol that is supposed to make the inmate who is to be executed unconscious, while the next two drugs, one paralyzes the inmate, the third one basically kills him, take effect.

    The death row inmates here from Oklahoma, there were three of them, claimed that midazolam doesn't work that way, that there were botched executions that we have read about, where inmates have gasped, have said it's not working, have not died for sometimes 20 minutes or longer.

    Today, Justice Alito in his opinion made basically two points about the drug. First, he said that he didn't believe that the inmates had sufficient scientific evidence to prove that it doesn't work, and he went with the state's expert witness in this respect.

    And, secondly, he said this is what really dooms their claim. Under a 2008 Supreme Court decision involving lethal injection, he said the inmates, when they're going to challenge a method as execution as unconstitutional, have to come forward with an alternative method that is constitutional. And he said these inmates didn't.

    So, that was the first part. Then we had Justice Breyer and Ginsburg writing. Justice Breyer wrote the dissent that she joined. And he said that he felt there's been 40 years of experimentation, studies, reports and the death penalty just isn't working and it's time to reexamine it. And he pointed out, for example, that it's arbitrary. It often depends on your race, your gender where you live, whether it's going to be imposed.

    It's unreliable. He said, look at the number of exonerations that we have had. There is, he said, substantial evidence that innocent people have been executed. There is the delay. It takes on average 18 years from conviction to sentencing.

    For all those reasons, he said, the court should have at least full briefing on the question of its continuing constitutionality.


    So, opening up this much, much bigger question.


    Exactly. And the death penalty will be back again on the docket next term.


    OK. There were the two other major opinions.

    But I want to now focus on — in just the time we have left on this ruling on the Obama administration's environmental regulations, the court saying the EPA made a mistake in 2011 on — when it said that power plants must regulate, limit the amount of mercury and other toxins that they emit.


    The problem here was — and this was also a 5-4 decision written by Justice Scalia — the business community, some power plants had challenged EPA's regulation of mercury emissions, saying that EPA had failed to consider the costs in determining whether it was — and this is standard language — appropriate and necessary to regulate.

    Justice Scalia said today that that was right, that EPA was unreasonable in not considering the cost at the very front end. EPA did consider costs and said it would consider costs when it got to actually formulating a standard that the power plants had to meet.


    But they didn't knock down the authority of the EPA…


    No. They did not.


    … to say to power plants that they have to do this.



    And they left it to EPA to go back and decide how it was going to handle the cost considerations.


    Marcia Coyle, watching the court for us.


    Oh, my pleasure, Judy.


    Thank you very much.


    Take care.

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