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Rules Governing Lethal Injections Not Required under Georgia Law

The Georgia Supreme Court has held that the state’s Board of Corrections (BOC) is not statutorily required to promulgate rules governing lethal injections. The Court further held that neither the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) nor the Commissioner of Corrections has statutory authority to promulgate any legally binding rules.

This case involved the appeal of a superior court’s dismissal of a mandamus petition filed by Warren Lee Hill, who is on death row for beating a fellow prisoner to death with a board studded with nails. The petition accused the BOC, DOC and Commissioner of failing to comply with the state’s Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when adopting Georgia’s new execution procedure. The new procedure, announced in July 2012, changed the three-drug lethal injection protocol to a one-drug protocol.

Initially, the Supreme Court noted that the APA specifically states the BOC and its penal institutions are not “agencies” under the Act. Therefore, unless provided for elsewhere in state law, the APA’s requirements do not apply to the BOC and DOC.

Hill argued that OCGA Title 42 states the BOC shall adopt rules governing, among other things, the “treatment” of prisoners. The Court rejected Hill’s argument that the term treatment includes the manner in which prisoners are executed; rather, it said that term has a more-focused meaning of “medical care.” To hold otherwise would render other parts of the statute superfluous or meaningless.

The Supreme Court agreed the BOC has the authority to make rules governing lethal injection procedures, but found it does not have a legal duty to do so. “[T]he Board is not specifically required by statute to make rules governing the particular subject of lethal injection procedures and ... the Board also has not abused its discretion in declining to exercise its general statutory authority to make rules governing any aspect of the prison system in declining to make such rules,” the Court wrote.

Lethal injection protocols are heavily litigated and closely scrutinized by state and federal courts, and such litigation and scrutiny have required the DOC Commissioner “to make repeated changes to lethal injection procedures.” It is not unreasonable for the BOC to entrust such specific areas of management to the Commissioner, the Supreme Court held.

Finally, it is the BOC, not the DOC or Commissioner, that has authority to create rules governing the state’s prison system. The Commissioner can propose that the BOC adopt rules within his management areas but has no legal duty to make such proposals. The dismissal of Hill’s mandamus petition was affirmed, and the Supreme Court lifted the stay of execution it had granted pending the resolution of his appeal. See: Hill v. Owens, 292 Ga. 380, 738 S.E.2d 56 (Ga. 2013).

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