Friday, March 11, 2016
The Eighth Circuit ruled today that the ACLU lacked standing to bring a case against the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections to stop him from enforcing the state's ban on revealing the identities of execution team members. The ruling is a set-back for the ACLU and its efforts to disclose information about the state's executions, and, in particular, who provides the drugs. (Publicizing the providers has been an effective strategy by anti-death-penalty advocates to get those providers to stop providing.)
The case arose when the ACLU realized that it may have posted information about Missouri's executions (obtained under the Missouri Sunshine Law) that included "the identity of a current or former member of an execution team" in violation of a state law that prohibits revealing this information. The organization only realized the potential violation after it saw how the Department defined the members of the team--to include "anyone selected by the department director who provides direct support for the administration of lethal chemical, including individuals who prescribe, compound, prepare, or otherwise supply the lethal chemicals for use in the lethal injection procedure." So the organization removed the material from its web-site and moved quickly to sue the director for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that the law violated free speech, free press, and due process.
The director moved to dismiss, claiming that he was immune under the Eleventh Amendment, that the ACLU lacked standing, and that the claims failed as a matter of law.
The Eighth Circuit today sided with the director on immunity and standing (and didn't say anything on the merits). The court ruled that the director was immune, because under the law he has no role in enforcing the prohibition, even if he has authority to define the members of the execution team. But the court said that defining the members wasn't an enforcement action within the meaning of Ex Parte Young.
The court also ruled that the ACLU lacked standing. That's (again) because the director has no authority to enforce the prohibition. (Instead, the law provides for a civil cause of action by any execution team member against anyone who reveals his or her identity.) The court said that this means that the director's action (defining the execution team) didn't cause the ACLU's injury, and an injunction against the director wouldn't redress it.
But the court did recognize that the ACLU suffered an injury--an objectively reasonable fear of legal action that chills its speech. Because this fear derives from the possibility of a team member's suit, the organization could probably could sue a team member who appears in its materials for the same relief. Or it could post the material, wait to be sued, and then raise the constitutional defenses.