Federal appeals court rules Arizona can withhold information about lethal injection drugs
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Federal appeals court rules Arizona can withhold information about lethal injection drugs

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday that Arizona does not have to provide death-row inmates with detailed information regarding the drugs to be used in their executions and the qualifications of execution team members.

Plaintiffs are seven Arizona death-row inmates and the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, a non-profit organization promoting free speech, accountable government and civic participation. Plaintiffs brought the First Amendment action against the officials of the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to challenge aspects of the Arizona execution process. In particular, the court was asked to decide whether the execution process violated Plaintiffs’ First Amendment right by (1) restricting the ability of execution witnesses to hear the sounds of the entire execution process; (2) failing to disclose the source and quality of the lethal-injection drugs, including chemical composition and dosages of the drugs, as well as the procedures for administering them; and (3) failing to disclose specific qualifications of the execution team members who will insert intravenous lines into the inmates.

On the first issue, the court determined that public viewing of executions in their entirety is rooted in historical tradition and that public observation plays a significant role in the functioning of capital punishment. Therefore, Plaintiffs have a right to hear the sounds of executions in their entirety.

On the second and third issue, the court ruled that unlike transcripts, which the Supreme Court explained may serve as a substitute for holding an open governmental proceeding, information regarding execution drugs and personnel does not provide a descriptive account of the execution process. Therefore the First Amendment does not mandate such disclosure.

The court also pointed out that the First Amendment right of access to the courts does not include the right of prisoners to “discover grievances and to litigate effectively once in court.” Consequently, the district court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the claim without leave to amend, since Plaintiffs’ right-of-access-to-the-courts claim fails as a matter of law.