. . . because this would make it blow a fuse. The New York Times legal affairs columnist Adam Liptak points out that
[i]t takes four votes for the [US supreme] court to agree to hear a case. But it takes five votes to stay an execution.
It is possible, then, for a death row inmate to persuade the court that his case is so important that it deserves a place on the court’s tiny docket of roughly 80 cases a year — but not so important that he should be allowed to stay alive in the meantime.
Consider the case of Luther J. Williams, who was put to death on Aug. 23 in Alabama. Four justices had voted to stay the execution.
A fifth wouldn’t step forward, even though Williams’s appeal was partially based on the inhumane nature of lethal injection. The justices have agreed to consider that issue in another case – but in the meantime, Williams was executed.
In the past, it was customary to stay executions of people whose cases are going to be taken up by the court. But justice is not just blind, but impatient, and too many death penalty cases were lining up to be heard. Since 1990, the court has practiced this peculiar math that leads to situation in which a case they’ve agreed to hear is rendered moot because the plaintiff has been killed.
It’s a sad state of affairs, given that one study has counted up 340 exonerations of convicted individuals since 1989 – nearly a quarter of them involving people on death row.