Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of State's Lethal Injection Protocol

March 28, 2017

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the written protocol by which the Tennessee Department of Correction carries out an execution by lethal injection.

The plaintiffs in this matter, each of whom have been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death, brought a declaratory judgment action in the trial court challenging the constitutionality of the lethal injection protocol under both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions.  This protocol was adopted on September 27, 2013, and provided that inmates who had been sentenced to death were to be executed by injection of a lethal dose of the drug, pentobarbital.  The trial court conducted a lengthy evidentiary hearing and eventually denied the plaintiffs relief.

The plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s decision, and the Tennessee Supreme Court assumed jurisdiction over the matter upon the defendants’ filing of a motion to accept jurisdiction.  The plaintiffs argued before the Tennessee Supreme Court that the lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional because it creates a substantial risk of serious harm and lingering death and that the trial court erred in dismissing their claim because the protocol requires the State to violate federal drug laws.

In the unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, the Court determined that the plaintiffs failed to establish that the lethal injection protocol, on its face, violates constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.  In so holding, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the protocol under both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions.   Additionally, the Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claim that the protocol requires the State to violate federal drug laws because the plaintiffs had no cause of action under the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. §§ 801-904 (2012).  The Court noted that “[c]learly, the federal government does not consider those of its own executions that are conducted by lethal injection to violate a regulatory scheme for the prescription and use of controlled substances” and declined to construe the Controlled Substances Act in a manner that was inconsistent with the federal government’s interpretation.

To read the Court’s opinion in Stephen Michael West, et al. v. Derrick D. Schofield, et al., authored by Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.