OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal judge ruled Friday that a lawsuit filed by two Oklahoma death row inmates seeking information on the drugs that will be used in their executions scheduled for later this month should be heard in state court.
U.S. District Judge David L. Russell said the Oklahoma Supreme Court has never considered whether it's proper for the Corrections Department to seal all records surrounding an execution — including the drugs' supplier — and that if he kept the case he would have to guess how state justices would decide.
"Rather than attempt to predict what the Oklahoma Supreme Court might do ... the court will remand this case to the state court so that the Oklahoma Supreme Court itself can decide whether the statute is constitutional under the Oklahoma constitution," Russell wrote in sending the case back to Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish, who scheduled a Monday morning hearing.
Under Oklahoma law, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner are barred from asking any material questions about the drugs that will be used to execute them: Who made them? Are they pure? What are their expiration dates?
The Oklahoma statute also bars lawyers from seeking the information during the discovery process of court proceedings, which the inmates claim denies their due process rights within the legal system and their right to avoid a cruel execution.
Lockett is schedule to die March 20 and Warner a week later. The state Pardon and Parole Board has denied clemency requests for both men. The Corrections Department says it is proceeding with its execution procedures while the inmates' lawsuit winds through the courts.
After meeting with lawyers in the case Friday, Russell dismissed the state's concerns that the federal court could consider the case more quickly. Parrish was poised to hold a hearing last week before the attorney general's office filed paperwork to move the case to U.S. District Court.
Seth Day, one of the lawyers for Lockett and Warner, said the local court was the appropriate venue because state courts should decide state issues.
"Although federal case law may be used by the state to interpret the state's own law, it's ultimately a question of state law," Day said in a telephone interview.
The Attorney General's office declined comment Friday beyond a statement by its spokeswoman Diane Clay: "We are committed to defending the state in this matter."
This case comes on the heels of a federal judge's ruling in Louisiana on Wednesday, mandating the state's Department of Corrections reveal the source of its execution drugs within five days. The death row inmate in that case was granted a 90-day postponement of his execution.
"I think it's incredibly persuasive for any court to see that another court has ruled similarly," Day said. "The difference here is that there's an actual state law that prohibits the disclosure (in Oklahoma)."