Justice Neil Gorsuch cast the deciding vote allowing Arkansas to execute a group of death-row inmates.
His first known decision cleared the way for the state to execute Ledell Lee, a convicted murderer, Thursday night.
Arkansas wanted to fast track the executions of seven other convicted murderers before the month’s end when one of its lethal-injection drugs expires. The state has had difficulty acquiring the necessary drugs because of restrictions pharmaceutical companies have imposed.
Justice Stephen Breyer said that was not an adequate reason to rush.
“Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the ‘use by’ date of the state’s execution drug is about to expire," he wrote. "That factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random."
Gorsuch joined Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito in the majority, but no explanation was given.
The inmates said the state’s drug protocol, which includes the controversial sedative midazolam, puts them at risk of an unnecessarily painful death. They said the odds were increased by Governor Asa Hutchinson’s original plan to execute all eight of them over the course of 11 days.
The state has scaled back its plans in the face of orders from other courts affecting some of the inmates. Arkansas had been planning to execute four inmates this week.
Lee’s execution is the first the state has carried out since 2005.