The decision halts the pending executions of four men, which the Justice Department had scheduled for December and January.
It’s been more than 16 years since the death penalty was last used at the federal level.
In July, Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to resume the federal death penalty so that he could schedule executions for five men: Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois, Dustin Lee Honken and Lezmond Mitchell. (In Mitchell’s case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in October to stay his execution pending resolution of his appeal.)
In November, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in the District of Columbia imposed a preliminary injunction, placing a temporary hold on federal executions while the four inmates legally challenged the Justice Department. The death row inmates have alleged that the Justice Department’s new lethal injection protocol ― which uses one drug instead of a three-drug combination it previously used ― is unlawful.
Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously rejected Barr’s motion to lift the injunction, sending the case up to the Supreme Court.
On Friday, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying: “While we are disappointed with the ruling, we will argue the case on its merits in the D.C. Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court. The Department of Justice is committed to upholding the rule of law and to carrying forward sentences imposed by our justice system.”