Justices to forgo oral debate in execution-drug suit
Arkansas Supreme Court justices won’t hear oral arguments before deciding a case seeking to disclose information about one of the state’s lethal injection drugs, the court said Thursday.
All but one of the seven high court justices ruled against a motion by state attorneys to have arguments in person before the justices.
The court did not issue an opinion explaining its decision, though a one-page copy of its decision indicated that Justice Josephine Hart sided with hearing the arguments.
Instead, the court will rely on hundreds of pages of legal briefs and supporting documents to reach its decision in Arkansas Department of Correction v. Steven Shults. The court has already agreed to speed up its consideration of the case so it is completed before the state’s next scheduled execution on Nov. 9.
Shults is a Little Rock attorney who sued the Department of Correction after the agency denied his public records request for documents detailing the origins of its supply of midazolam, a sedative used in lethal injections.
The department had announced it obtained a new supply of midazolam on the same day in August when Attorney General Leslie Rut-
ledge asked the governor to set an execution date for Jack Gordon Greene. Greene was convicted of capital murder in the 1991 slaying of a minister in Johnson County.
Shults sought labels and package inserts for the drug — documents that in the past have been used by reporters to identify the manufacturers — but the Correction Department declined his request, pointing to language in the state’s Method of Execution Act aimed at keeping secret the sources of its execution drugs. Shults filed a lawsuit in which he argued the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act trumped the execution law’s secrecy provisions.
It’s the second such lawsuit he had filed against the department. Earlier this year, ahead of a series of April executions, Shults sought the same documents for another execution drug, potassium chloride.
Shults’ legal team did not file a response to the state’s request for oral arguments. One of his attorneys, Heather Goodson Zachary, said Thursday they were neutral to the idea of holding oral arguments.
“I think our position is the statute is pretty clear,” Zachary said.
A spokesman for Rutledge declined to comment on the court’s decision Thursday.
Twice this year, in each of Shults’ lawsuits, a circuit court judge has sided with the attorney and ordered the Department of Correction to release
the documents. Both times, the state appealed to the Supreme Court and got the justices to temporarily halt the lower court’s order to release the information.
Both cases are now awaiting full consideration by the high court. However, the justices are expected reach a decision first on the case involving documents for the drug midazolam, Zachary said.
Shults’ attorneys are due to file their legal brief in that case today.