The Supreme Court this evening, voting 5-4 along usual ideological lines, vacated the stay of execution entered yesterday by the Eleventh Circuit to allow the court to hear an Alabama death row defendant’s religious liberty claims concerning who could be present at his execution.  The opinion of the majority of the court runs these two paragraphs:

The application to vacate the stay of execution of sentence of death entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on February 6, 2019, presented to JUSTICE THOMAS and by him referred to the Court, is granted.

On November 6, 2018, the State scheduled Domineque Ray’s execution date for February 7, 2019.  Because Ray waited until January 28, 2019 to seek relief, we grant the State’s application to vacate the stay entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  See Gomez v. United States Dist. Court for Northern Dist. of Cal., 503 U.S. 653, 654 (1992) (per curiam) (“A court may consider the last-minute nature of an application to stay execution in deciding whether to grant equitable relief.”).

A two-page dissent, authored by Justice Kagan, and Joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor, gets started and ends this way:

Holman Correctional Facility, the Alabama prison where Domineque Ray will be executed tonight, regularly allows a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber. But Ray is Muslim. And the prison refused his request to have an imam attend him in the last moments of his life.  Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that there was a substantial likelihood that the prison’s policy violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, and stayed Ray’s execution so it could consider his claim on its merits.  Today, this Court reverses that decision as an abuse of discretion and permits Mr. Ray’s execution to go forward. Given the gravity of the issue presented here, I think that decision profoundly wrong….

This Court is ordinarily reluctant to interfere with the substantial discretion Courts of Appeals have to issue stays when needed.  See, e.g., Dugger v. Johnson, 485 U.S. 945, 947 (1988) (O’Connor, J., joined by Rehnquist, C. J., dissenting). Here, Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the State puts him to death.  The Eleventh Circuit wanted to hear that claim in full.  Instead, this Court short-circuits that ordinary process — and itself rejects the claim with little briefing and no argument — just so the State can meet its preferred execution date. I respectfully dissent.

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