Hill v. McDonough

PETITIONER: Clarence E. Hill
RESPONDENT: James R. McDonough, Interim Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, et al.
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 05-8794
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 547 US 573 (2006)
GRANTED: Apr 24, 2006
ARGUED: Apr 26, 2006
DECIDED: Jun 12, 2006

Carolyn M. Snurkowski - argued the cause for Respondents
D. Todd Doss - argued the cause for Petitioner
Kannon K. Shanmugam - argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

Clarence Hill was sentenced to death in Florida, which ordinarily uses a three-drug combination for executions. Hill claimed that this particular form of lethal injection was unnecessarily and gratuitously painful, and that it therefore violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. However, Hill had previously filed for a federal writ of habeas corpus challenging his conviction, and the federal district court ruled that his new challenge was the practical equivalent of a second habeas corpus appeal. Successive habeas corpus appeals are not allowed under 28 U.S.C. 2244, and so the district court rejected Hill's petition. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.


Is a prisoner's challenge to a particular form of execution - but not to the execution sentence itself - the practical equivalent of a federal habeas corpus petition and therefore barred if the prisoner has already sought habeas review?

Media for Hill v. McDonough

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 26, 2006 in Hill v. McDonough

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 12, 2006 in Hill v. McDonough

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The second opinion for the Court is in Hill versus McDonough, No. 05-8794.

Death-row inmate Clarence E. Hill seeks to bring an Eighth Amendment challenge to the sequence of drugs Florida would likely use to execute him by lethal injection.

We granted certiorari to decide whether Hill can bring his challenge pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 -- that’s the federal statute that allows individuals to sue state actors for violations of federal rights -- or whether he must seek a writ of habeas corpus under the rules and conditions set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

So the question is whether or not he must proceed under Section 1983 or habeas corpus.

The question of which of the two statutes governs has significance, because they carry different restrictions and allow different forms of relief.

In this case, Hill filed a suit under Section 1983.

The United Stated District Court for the Northern District of Florida held that the suit was the equivalent of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and that that statute, the habeas-corpus statute, barred Hill’s suit.

The Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed, and we now reverse.

A challenge to the lawfulness of confinement or a sentence must proceed as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

In Nelson v. Campbell, decided in 2004, the Court addressed an inmate’s Eighth Amendment claim, and the question was whether or not that was a challenge to the lawfulness of the sentence.

In Nelson, the inmate challenged an invasive surgical procedure the State planned to use during his lethal-injection execution.

This Court held that the suit could proceed under 1983, because it did not seek an injunction that would bar the lethal injection itself.

The procedure the state proposed to use was not mandated by law, and the inmate appeared willing to concede the existence of an acceptable alternative procedure.

We conclude today that Hill’s 1983 action is controlled by our decision in Nelson.

The particular sequence of chemicals Hill challenges is not required by Florida law.

Hill concedes the existence of a Constitutional alternative, and the state has not thus far contended it lacks a practical legal alternative.

One concern is that the foregoing analysis may be more theoretical than real.

The states and its amici contend that the law must recognize how inmates file suits like Hill’s only to forestall execution.

To address this concern, United States as Amicus Curiae proposes that we deem Hill’s suit a habeas action, because he has not offered an acceptable alternative procedure.

Specific pleading requirements, however, are mandated by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and not through case-by-case determination of the federal courts.

As for other arguments made by the respondents and State amici, they are foreclosed by the controlling decision in Nelson.

Our conclusions do not diminish the State’s and crime victim’s important interests in the timely enforcement of a sentence, nor do they deny federal courts the means and the duty to protect those interests.

A stay of execution is an equitable remedy; it is not available as a matter of right.

Courts must apply a presumption against granting a stay where a claim could have been brought in time to consider the merits without delaying the sentence, and indeed a number of federal courts have invoked their equitable powers to dismiss challenges to execution procedures they saw as speculative or filed too late in the day.

The equities and merits of Hill’s actions are not before us, however.

We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

This opinion is unanimous.