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Court rejects challenge to Arizona execution law

A state appellate court on Thursday rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of Arizona’s injection execution law but warned the state that last-minute changes in execution procedures are a problem.

A lawsuit filed for death-row inmates argued that the execution law delegates too much authority to the Department of Corrections to decide how to conduct executions, effectively meaning there are no standards on how executions are conducted.

The lawsuit said that violates the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers between branches of government. That doctrine keeps one branch of government from encroaching on the constitutional authority of another.

Upholding a trial judge’s ruling last year, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel’s ruling rejected that claim. It said the bare-bones law doesn’t have to get into procedural details because the Department of Corrections is better suited than the Legislature to make such decisions.

The Court of Appeals also rejected the inmates’ claim that last-minute changes to execution processes deprived them of meaningful legal review of changes, such as the recent switch from a three-chemical mix to a one-chemical method.

Because courts so far have been able to provide reviews of contested changes and because the state’s newly revised protocol calls for a week’s notice on the director’s choice of mixtures for injection chemicals, “the department has not yet violated the Arizona Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine,” the ruling said.

However, the ruling said courts’ considerations of some past changes have been rushed.

“If the department were to continue the practice in such a way as to unreasonably limit or hamper the courts from exercising meaningful judicial review of its actions, then, depending on the facts, we might be presented with a separation of powers violation,” the ruling concluded.

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