The ruling effectively banned the state from carrying out executions, although the court did not specifically deem that either lethal injection or capital punishment is unconstitutional. Instead, the court ruled that only the Arkansas legislature, and not the state correction's system, can decide the method of execution for death row inmates, invalidating current state regulations.
It is evident to this court that the Legislature has abdicated its responsibility and passed to the executive branch, in this case the (Arkansas Department of Correction), the unfettered discretion to determine all protocol and procedures, most notably the chemicals to be used, for a state execution, Justice Jim Gunter wrote in the five-justice majority opinion.
In their challenge, the 10 death row inmates argued that a 2009 law -- giving the Arkansas Department of Correction and its director the authority to choose the drugs administered to execute inmates by lethal injection -- violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.
In a 5 to 2 vote, the court decided the legislature had improperly given the prison system unfettered authority over capital punishment procedures. The two dissenting justices argued that the corrections' department discretion was not unfettered because it is bound by federal and state constitutions that guard against cruel and unusual punishment.
The same 2009 law states that in the event the lethal injection section is found to be unconstitutional, death sentences will be carried out by electrocution. That option is unlikely, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center, which reports that every state that uses capital punishment and the federal government permit lethal injection as the primary form of execution.
However, Arkansas, along with seven other states, still authorizes death by electrocution is some circumstances.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, plans to coordinate with the state Attorney General and legislative leaders to develop new execution regulations that respect the court's decision.
The death penalty is still the law in Arkansas, but the Department of Correction now has no legal way to carry out an execution until a new statute is established, Beebe said in a statement.
Arkansas currently houses 40 death row inmates. Although Beebe has set several execution dates since taking office in 2007, the state has not put anyone to death since 2005, in part because of similar legal challenges.
Although thirty-three states still authorize the use of capital punishment, executions have become increasingly sparse among many as critics weigh the enormous costs associated with the practice. During the last five years, four states have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole, which several studies indicate is significantly less expensive than actually housing and then executing a death row inmate.
California could potentially become the 18th state in the nation to abolish the death penalty in November, when residents are set to vote on a ballot measure that would replace capital punishment with life in prison without the possibility of parole.