On Monday, the Supreme Court authorized Missouri officials to administer a lethal injection to an inmate on death row who has a condition that could cause his death to be extremely painful. Russel Bucklew suffers from a rare condition called cavernous hemangioma. His body is covered in sensitive, blood-filled tumors, and according to medical expert Dr. Joel Zivot, the injection will cause his tumors to fill his mouth with blood until he slowly suffocates to death.
But Justice Neil Gorsuch's opinion for the court goes beyond simply allowing a painful execution—it quietly erodes over 60 years of precedent cases, Slate reports.
In two court cases, 2008's Baze and 2015's Glossip, The Supreme Court ruled that because it is settled that capital punishment is constitutional,” there “must be” a constitutional “means of carrying it out.” In order to be in accordance with the Eighth Amendment, states have a duty to utilize less painful methods of execution, not to eliminate pain entirely.
But Thomas argued in the minority that the Eight Amendment only prohibited executions from being made intentionally painful. As long as states do not "superadd" suffering to an execution, he wrote, it is in accordance with the Eight Amendment.
But in the 2019 case, Gorsuch concluded that death row prisoners must “show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method of execution” when “the question in dispute is whether the State’s chosen method of execution cruelly superadds pain to the death sentence.”
Prior to the ruling, the Supreme Court relied on "evolving standards of decency" of "civilized society" to determine whether a punishment violates the Eighth Amendment. But now, the backwards "superadds pain" test has become the new measure that courts must consider.