HOUSTON (AP) — The Texas Supreme Court reversed itself Friday by granting the state’s request to review a case dealing with the disclosure of an execution drug supplier that officials have fought for years to keep secret.
The court set oral arguments for Jan. 23 in a case that stems from a 2014 lawsuit filed by several death penalty attorneys who want to know where Texas prison officials got execution drugs used in two executions that year. A lower court ordered the state to turn over the supplier’s name, but the state appealed.
The attorneys who filed the lawsuit have said the case is ultimately about government transparency. They say the name of the supplier was needed to verify the quality of the drug and to spare condemned inmates from unconstitutional pain and suffering. Texas later implemented a law that allows the state to keep future supplier records secret. But a ruling against the state could still have implications.
Arizona’s attorney general filed a court brief in support of Texas in July, arguing that the lower court’s decision, if allowed to stand, would “bring dire consequences that ripple beyond Texas and threaten the death penalty’s operation nationwide.”
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The availability of execution drugs has become an issue in many death penalty states after traditional pharmaceutical makers refused to sell their products to prison agencies for execution use. Similar lawsuits about drug provider identities have been argued in other capital punishment states.
In the Texas case, the 3rd Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, must identify its drug supplier for the 2014 executions. The Texas Supreme Court had denied the state’s appeal in June.
Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the agency was pleased the court reconsidered.
“Releasing publicly the identity of any supplier of execution drugs raises serious safety concerns that real harm could come to the business operators and its employees,” he said.
In a court filing earlier this month, lawyers with the Texas Attorney General’s Office said the state’s supplier of the pentobarbital used in executions was a retail compounding pharmacy that was open to the public. The lawyers argued the company was a “soft target” in an urban area “whose only defense is its anonymity; it is vulnerable to violence once publicly identified.”
Attorneys who filed the original lawsuit argued in September that such claims were exaggerated.
“The core fact in this case … is that there has never been any violence (or threat of violence) against a (lethal injection drug) supplier in Texas, even when their identities were known for many years,” the attorneys wrote.
Maurie Levin, one of those attorneys, said Friday that the Texas Supreme Court is giving the case “the consideration demanded by the seriousness of the issue.”
“We are confident the court will continue to uphold the principles of transparency and open government this suit is based upon,” Levin said.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70