COVID-19 Special Coverage
Supreme Court hears oral argument in death penalty, railroad tax cases
Supreme Court hears oral argument in death penalty, railroad tax cases

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in two cases: the first concerning alternative methods of capital punishment for an inmate suffering from a rare illness, and the second concerning employment taxes under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act (RRTA).

The first, Bucklew v. Precythe, asks the court to consider whether a Missouri death row inmate should be provided an alternative method of execution when the intended execution will cause him great pain and suffering due to his rare and severe illness, in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Bucklew suffers from cavernous hemangioma, which is a rare illness that causes “fragile blood-filled tumors to grow in his head, neck and throat.” Buckley posits that as a result, the execution will cause him a “gruesome and painful” death. The Supreme Court granted stay of Buckley’s execution in March, just hours before he was to be executed.

During argument, the court questioned Bucklew’s attorney about Bucklew’s change in medical condition. In June, Bucklew had a trach implanted in his throat, which changes the expected outcome of the intended method of execution. Justice Sonia Sotomayor pressed on this issue and questioned Bucklew’s attorney on whether the trach will stay in, saying: “does he still have a trach in his throat? And if he does, doesn’t that moot out certain of your claims, particularly I thought much of the prep work and dangers related to him choking on his own blood. Doesn’t the trach minimize that now?” In response, the attorney pointed out the uncertainty of the need for the trach and cautioned the court that not rendering a decision would cause the same initial issue if the trach is taken out prior to execution.

The second case, BNSF Railway v. Loos, asks the court: “[w]hether a railroad’s payment to an employee for time lost from work is subject to employment taxes under the Railroad Retirement Tax Act.” The respondent, Loos, who had worked for BNSF for 15 years as a brakeman, switchman and conductor, was dismissed from the railway company due to attendance violations that arose out of a workplace injury Loos suffered in 2010. Loos also received an attendance violation for absences he accrued while testifying against BNSF in a retaliatory dismissal case filed by two of his co-workers.

The case is unusual in that BNSF is asking the Court to impose more federal taxes on the company. Though the amount in controversy is a mere $3,765, the long-term consequence would likely help the retirement fund to thrive and keep railroad companies from paying more into the fund. The question turns on the Railroad Retirement Tax Act’s (RRTA) provision that tax is to be imposed on compensation paid by railroads to their employees, and whether that provision also considers money paid for lost wages.

During arguement, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked BNSF’s attorney why it has an interest in this case. In response, the attorney said:

[T]he employer cares because under a system that would credit all lost wage FELA awards to retirement benefits but without any — any tax burden has a long-term risk of insolvency or instability to the system. So there’s a short-term savings to be sure, and, generally, people don’t like to pay taxes for the sake of taxes, but the entire purpose of this Tax Act is to fund the retirement benefits for railroad employees, and pensions are good for the railroads.

The US joined BNSF and argued amicus curiae. The respondent, Loos, focused on the language of the RRTA and argued that “compensation” in the Act is defined as “any form of money remuneration paid to an individual for services rendered as an employee to one or more employers.” By those terms, Loos argues the payment for lost wages can not be included.