LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas’ attempt to carry out its first execution in nearly 12 years wasn’t thwarted by the type of liberal activist judge Republicans regularly bemoan here, but instead by a state Supreme Court that’s been the focus of expensive campaigns by conservative groups to reshape the judiciary.
The court voted Wednesday to halt the execution of an inmate facing lethal injection Thursday night, two days after justices stayed the executions of two other inmates. The series of 4-3 decisions blocking start of what had been an unprecedented plan to execute eight men in 11 days were only the latest in recent years preventing this deeply Republican state from resuming capital punishment.
The possibility that justices could continue sparing the lives of the remaining killers scheduled to die this month has left death penalty proponents wondering how much longer executions will remain in a holding pattern.
“I have ultimate respect for the court and I’m not going to question individual decisions but I would say there is frustration among the Legislature as to the court’s continued refusal to allow an execution to go through,” said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Since the last execution in 2005, the state Supreme Court has at least twice forced Arkansas to rewrite its death penalty law. One of those cases spared Don Davis, who again received a stay Monday night. The legal setbacks at one point prompted the state’s previous attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, to declare Arkansas’ death penalty system “broken.”
But unlike the earlier decisions, this stay came from a court that had shifted to the right in recent elections. Outside groups and the candidates spent more than $1.6 million last year on a pair of high court races that were among the most fiercely fought judicial campaigns in the state’s history. Arkansas was among a number of states where conservative groups spent millions on such efforts.
The candidates backed by the conservative groups won both races. One of those winners voted for Monday’s night stay.
The three stays, along with one granted earlier, have whittled down the execution list to four, unless the U.S. Supreme Court allows Arkansas to move ahead with Stacey Johnson’s Thursday execution. Arkansas officials are trying to carry out the executions before their supply of midazolam, one of the execution drugs used, expires at the end of April.
It’s unclear whether the new execution obstacles would have any political fallout for the court. Only one of the seven justices is up for election next year, and judicial rules prevent candidates from announcing their bids until next month. Polling has shown strong support for the death penalty in Arkansas.
The judge facing re-election, Courtney Goodson, lost her bid for chief justice last year after conservative groups blanketed the state with ads attacking her. The groups accused her of being close to trial attorneys and for the court’s decision to…