US judge breaks ranks on first day on the job

Newly appointed United States Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito broke ranks with fellow conservative jurists on his first day on the job, backing a ruling by the court to stay the execution of an inmate in the midwestern state of Missouri.

Alito joined the majority in a 6-3 vote late on Wednesday that rejected a request by Missouri authorities to execute convicted murderer Michael Taylor by lethal injection. The execution had been scheduled for midnight (5am GMT on Thursday).

Taylor’s lawyers argued that lethal injection causes suffering and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the US constitution.

The split decision came on Alito’s first day after being sworn in on Tuesday following a bitterly partisan debate in Congress over his nomination.

Right-wing political activists and President George Bush’s Republican allies in Congress strongly backed Alito’s nomination to the country’s highest court, hailing him as a brilliant legal mind and hoping he will shift the court rightward.

An appeals court will now rule on Taylor’s argument that the lethal mix of chemicals used to carry out the death penalty amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the legality of lethal injection but on whether Taylor can challenge the method in court.

Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, all considered conservatives, voted to permit Missouri to go ahead with the execution.

Two Florida death row inmates in separate cases in January had their executions stayed by arguing that lethal injections may be inhumane, but the Supreme Court refused to spare a third man in Indiana who had also contested the legality of the method.

Alito (55) a federal appeals court judge, has taken the seat vacated by departing justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a moderate who was often the swing vote on the nine-member court.

Alito is the second judge to be appointed by Bush, who had vowed in his election campaign to name jurists with conservative credentials who would not ”legislate from the bench”.

In September, the Senate approved Roberts to be chief justice. In contrast to Alito, half of the Senate’s opposition Democrats voted to approve Roberts, whom they viewed as conservative but not extreme.

But liberal groups and Democratic lawmakers opposed Alito’s nomination, saying he would move the court in a right-wing direction outside the mainstream of US opinion.

Democrats said they were concerned Alito would join other conservative jurists in curtailing or overturning access to abortion and ”affirmative action” anti-discrimination laws while expanding presidential authority.

Based on his earlier opinions delivered as a federal judge, Alito apparently opposes abortion. He dissented when the Third Circuit Court ruled against a Pennsylvania law which required women who want abortions to inform their husbands.

In a case involving religion in public life, he crafted a majority ruling which said that Christian and Jewish symbols that a city erected to celebrate the holiday season did not violate the Constitution’s stand on separation of church and state. – AFP



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