Shortly after 1 a.m. on Saturday, Dustin Higgs became the 13th person since July to be executed by the federal government. Hours earlier, the Supreme Court announced a 6-3 decision paving the way for the execution to take place — but it wasn’t without a scathing dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 

“After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July,” Sotomayor wrote in her opinion. “Today, Dustin Higgs will become the thirteenth. To put that in historical context, the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.” 

As noted in Sotomayor’s opinion, the Federal Death Penalty Act was enacted in 1994. Before July 2020, only three people had been federally executed — two in 2001 and one person in 2003. 

After a 17-year hiatus, President Trump resumed federal executions in July 2020. By December, the U.S. government had executed more people within the year than all the states that still conduct executions. 

Sotomayor wrote that the past 7 months saw an “unprecedented rush” of federal executions that has led to numerous legal disputes. 

One such dispute, she wrote, is that the government scheduled executions at such a quick pace that those facing the executions had to “fast-track challenges to their sentences.”  In some cases, she wrote, the courts did not have a chance to even determine if the executions were legal. 

“…the DOJ [Department of Justice] did not tread carefully,” Sotomayor wrote. “…Rather than permit an orderly resolution of these suits, the Government consistently refused to postpone executions and sought emergency relief to proceed before courts had meaningful opportunities to determine if the executions were even legal.” 

Higgs was convicted in 1996 for kidnapping and ordering the murder of three women. His attorneys had asked for a stay of execution because they claimed Higgs’ lungs were damaged after he contracted COVID-19, and argued the execution would result in “a sensation of drowning akin to waterboarding.”

“This is not justice,” Sotomayor continued. “…Yet the Court has allowed the United States to execute thirteen people in six months under a statutory scheme and regulatory protocol that have received inadequate scrutiny, without resolving the serious claims the condemned individuals raised. Those whom the Government executed during this endeavor deserved more from this Court.”

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