Russell Bucklew v. Anne L. Precythe, Director, Missouri Department of Corrections

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Russell Bucklew v. Anne L. Precythe, Director, Missouri Department of Corrections  (2019) 
by the Supreme Court of the United States

Note: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.



No. 17–8151. Argued November 6, 2018—Decided April 1, 2019

In Baze v. Rees, 553 U. S. 35, a plurality of this Court concluded that a State’s refusal to alter its execution protocol could violate the Eighth Amendment only if an inmate first identified a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative procedure that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.” Id., at 52. A majority of the Court subsequently held Baze’s plurality opinion to be controlling. See Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___.

Petitioner Russell Bucklew was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The State of Missouri plans to execute him by lethal injection using a single drug, pentobarbital. Mr. Bucklew presented an as-applied Eighth Amendment challenge to the State’s lethal injection protocol, alleging that, regardless whether it would cause excruciating pain for all prisoners, it would cause him severe pain because of his particular medical condition.

The District Court dismissed his challenge. The Eighth Circuit, applying the BazeGlossip test, remanded the case to allow Mr. Bucklew to identify a feasible, readily implemented alternative procedure that would significantly reduce his alleged risk of pain. Eventually, Mr. Bucklew identified nitrogen hypoxia, but the District Court found the proposal lacking and granted the State’s motion for summary judgment. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.


1. Baze and Glossip govern all Eighth Amendment challenges, whether facial or as-applied, alleging that a method of execution inflicts unconstitutionally cruel pain. Pp. 8–20.

(a) The Eighth Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual” methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death. See Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___. As originally understood, the Eighth Amendment tolerated methods of execution, like hanging, that involved a significant risk of pain, while forbidding as cruel only those methods that intensified the death sentence by “superadding” terror, pain, or disgrace. To establish that a State’s chosen method cruelly “superadds” pain to the death sentence, a prisoner must show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain and that the State has refused to adopt without a legitimate penological reason. Baze, 553 U. S., at 52; Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___. And Glossip left no doubt that this standard governs “all Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claims.” Id., at ___. Baze and Glossip recognized that the Constitution affords a “measure of deference to a State’s choice of execution procedures” and does not authorize courts to serve as “boards of inquiry charged with determining ‘best practices’ for executions.” Baze, 553 U. S., at 51–52. Nor do they suggest that traditionally accepted methods of execution are necessarily rendered unconstitutional as soon as an arguably more humane method becomes available. Pp. 8–14.

(b) Precedent forecloses Mr. Bucklew’s argument that methods posing a “substantial and particular risk of grave suffering” when applied to a particular inmate due to his “unique medical condition” should be considered “categorically” cruel. Because distinguishing between constitutionally permissible and impermissible degrees of pain is a necessarily comparative exercise, the Court held in Glossip, identifying an available alternative is “a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claims” alleging cruel pain. 576 U. S., at ___. Mr. Bucklew’s argument is also inconsistent with the original and historical understanding of the Eighth Amendment on which Baze and Glossip rest: When it comes to determining whether a punishment is unconstitutionally cruel because of the pain involved, the law has always asked whether the punishment superadds pain well beyond what’s needed to effectuate a death sentence. And answering that question has always involved a comparison with available alternatives, not an abstract exercise in “categorical” classification. The substantive meaning of the Eighth Amendment does not change depending on how broad a remedy the plaintiff chooses to seek. Mr. Bucklew’s solution also invites pleading games, and there is little likelihood that an inmate facing a serious risk of pain will be unable to identify an available alternative. Pp. 14–20.

2. Mr. Bucklew has failed to satisfy the BazeGlossip test. Pp. 20–28.

(a) He fails for two independent reasons to present a triable question on the viability of nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative to the State’s lethal injection protocol. First, an inmate must show that his proposed alternative method is not just theoretically “feasible” but also “‘readily implemented,’” Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___–___. This means the inmate’s proposal must be sufficiently detailed to permit a finding that the State could carry it out relatively easily and reasonably quickly. Mr. Bucklew’s proposal falls well short of that standard. He presented no evidence on numerous questions essential to implementing his preferred method; instead, he merely pointed to reports from correctional authorities in other States indicating the need for additional study to develop a nitrogen hypoxia protocol. Second, the State had a “legitimate” reason for declining to switch from its current method of execution as a matter of law, Baze, 553 U. S., at 52, namely, choosing not to be the first to experiment with a new, “untried and untested” method of execution. Id., at 41. Pp. 20–22.

(b) Even if nitrogen hypoxia were a viable alternative, neither of Mr. Bucklew’s theories shows that nitrogen hypoxia would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain. First, his contention that the State may use painful procedures to administer the lethal injection, including forcing him to lie flat on his back (which he claims could impair his breathing even before the pentobarbital is administered), rests on speculation unsupported, if not affirmatively contradicted, by the record. And to the extent the record is unclear, he had ample opportunity to conduct discovery and develop a factual record concerning the State’s planned procedures. Second, Mr. Bucklew contends that while either method will cause him to experience feelings of suffocation for some period of time before he is rendered fully unconscious, the duration of that period will be shorter with nitrogen than with pentobarbital. But nothing in the record suggests that he will be capable of experiencing pain for significantly more time after receiving pentobarbital than he would after receiving nitrogen. His claim to the contrary rested on his expert’s testimony regarding a study of euthanasia in horses that everyone now agrees the expert misunderstood or misremembered. Pp. 23–28.

883 F. 3d 1087, affirmed.

Gorsuch, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., and Kavanaugh, J., filed concurring opinions. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined, as to all but Part III. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).