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Supreme Court Wraps Up Big Term With Death Penalty, Redistricting And More


The Supreme Court ended its term today, handing down decisions in two major cases - capital punishment and election district lines. The high court ruled that Arizona could establish a special nonpartisan commission to draw congressional redistricting lines, and the high court upheld the use of a controversial sedative that's part of a three-drug cocktail in lethal injections. NPR's Nina Totenberg joins us now from the Supreme Court. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with redistricting. Remind us of the debate on this political redistricting.

TOTENBERG: Well, as you know, there is a lot of partisan redistricting that goes on, partisan gerrymandering, and a number of states, including Arizona, California, Iowa and some others, have tried to take some of the partisanship out of redistricting by setting up independent commissions. They've done that in most cases by having the people by referenda strip the legislature of the power to draw these district lines, saying - well, they're completely self-interested, and instead, having an independent redistricting commission. And in Arizona, the state legislature challenged that, claiming it was unconstitutional because the election clause of the Constitution provides that the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof, but the Congress may at any time, by law, make or alter such regulations. And by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the redistricting commissions. So they may now in fact begin to crop up in some other states because it is a way of nonpartisan reform, I suppose one could say.

The author of the opinion was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She said, I recognize that we're a court - she said that the dominant purpose of the clause that I just read, the historical record bears out, (reading) we're certainly not to restrict the ways states enact legislation. It was to empower Congress to override state election rules and protect against abuses by state-level politicians. When the Constitution was composed and later ratified, the people's legislative prerogatives, initiatives and referenda were not in our democracy's arsenal. But is the election clause reasonably read to disarm states from adopting modes of lawmaking that give a direct voice to the people? We think not.

She was joined by the Court's three other more liberal justices, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, one of the more conservative members of the Court.

MONTAGNE: And Nina, just ever so briefly on this one - had the court ruled in the other direction and ruled against independent commissions, would that have had a disruptive effect on the next congressional elections?

TOTENBERG: Almost certainly in Arizona, possibly in California and some other states because independent commissions have drawn these district lines, and they've been in place now for five years.

MONTAGNE: And the other major decision involves lethal injections, brought by death row inmates in Oklahoma. In essence, it claimed that the most commonly used drug cocktail amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and what?

TOTENBERG: Well, the court said in another 5-4 opinion - this time written by Justice Samuel Alito, one of the court's most conservative members - that those challenging the death penalty have to show that there is a less painful method available and that they had not done so in this case, that midazolam was acceptable in - since they couldn't do that. And there were series of very passionate dissents from the bench and a rejoinder by Justice Scalia, who answered the dissenters. And Justice Sonia Sotomayor read her dissent from the bench calling midazolam a drug that was akin to allowing burning at the stake because the other two drugs were so painful, and it wouldn't protect the person being executed. And Justices Breyer and Ginsburg said the time had come to re-examine the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment because there - all the things that we've tried to do to prevent it from being that have not succeeded.

MONTAGNE: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Nina Totenberg speaking to us from the Supreme Court. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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