Death penalty cases have long been among the most difficult and divisive for the Supreme Court. With the possibility that federal executions may resume this year for the first time since 2003, the court’s role in these cases may grow even more complex.
The Supreme Court has three primary roles in death penalty cases. First, the court reviews habeas corpus appeals by death row inmates raising claims that their trial or death sentence was carried out in violation of their constitutional rights. Sometimes states appeal these cases to the Supreme Court when inmates have won in the lower court. Second, the court receives petitions challenging the constitutionality of the method of execution. Third, and most dramatically, the court handles emergency applications to stay executions pending additional court proceedings.