Tennessee Supreme Court rules against identifying those involved with lethal injection process

News release from Administrative Office of the Court:

The Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed a trial court ruling ordering the State to disclose the names of those involved in the execution process in a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

The case – a lawsuit filed by death row inmates – comes to the Supreme Court via an interlocutory appeal, an appeal concerning a particular issue while the case is still pending in a lower court. The dispute over the identity disclosures arose during the discovery process, the legal method by which opposing parties in a lawsuit gather information from one another.

The plaintiffs have asserted that the identities of the physicians, pharmacists, medical examiners, medical personnel, and executioners that participate in the lethal injection process are necessary to their case. The State contends the identities are not relevant and that state law makes the information confidential.

The trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to compel the release of the information, and the State took this interlocutory appeal of that ruling to the Court of Appeals, which agreed with the trial court. The Tennessee Supreme Court then agreed to the State’s request to hear the case.

In an opinion written by Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings, holding that, to be discoverable, information must be both relevant to the subject of the lawsuit and not privileged. The Court found it unnecessary in this case to adopt a privilege prohibiting the disclosure of the information, but found that the identities sought are not relevant to determine the constitutionality of the execution protocol as written. Therefore, the trial court was in error in granting the motion to compel the release of the identities.

The Court also noted this case is a challenge to the constitutional validity of the protocol as written, not as applied, explaining that the trial court failed to consider the distinction between a challenge to the protocol as written and any challenges to the protocol as it hypothetically may be applied on some uncertain date in the future by currently unidentifiable persons.

Chief Justice Sharon G. Lee and Justice Gary R. Wade agreed with the outcome in the Court’s ruling, although they arrived at that result using a different analysis. Justice Wade filed a separate opinion concurring in the result.

The case now goes back to the trial court for further consideration in light of today’s ruling.

The Court also directed the Davidson County Chancery Court to expedite the case.  The trial on these issues is to commence within 120 days and conclude within 150 days from today, with a final decision made by the trial court within 30 days after the conclusion of the trial.

Read the opinion in Stephen Michael West, et al. v. Derrick D. Schofield, et al, authored by Justice Bivins, the concurring opinion by Justice Wade, and the Supreme Court order with a timeline for the trial court.

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