WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to consider the constitutionality of lethal injections in a case that could affect the way inmates are executed around the country.
Ralph Baze had been scheduled for execution Tuesday. Now his case will go to the Supreme Court.
The high court will hear a challenge from two inmates on death row in Kentucky -- Ralph Baze and Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr. -- who sued Kentucky in 2004, claiming lethal injection amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Baze has been scheduled for execution Tuesday night, but the Kentucky Supreme Court halted the proceedings earlier this month.
"This is probably one of the most important cases in decades as it relates to the death penalty," said David Barron, the public defender who represents Baze and Bowling.
The court has previously made it easier for death row inmates to contest the lethal injections used across the country for executions.
But until Tuesday, the justices had never agreed to consider the fundamental question of whether the mix of drugs used in Kentucky and elsewhere violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Baze and Bowling say the procedure inflicts unnecessary pain and suffering on the inmate.
The two inmates sued in 2004 and a trial was held the following spring. A state judge upheld the use of lethal injection and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed that decision. The appeal taken up Tuesday stems from that decision.
All 37 states that perform lethal injections use the same three-drug cocktail. The three drugs consist of an anesthetic, a muscle paralyzer, and a substance to stop the heart. Death penalty foes have argued that if the condemned is not given enough anesthetic, he can suffer excruciating pain without being able to cry out.
U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled last week that the Tennessee's method of lethal injection is unconstitutional and ordered the state not to execute a death row inmate. The state is still deciding whether to appeal the judge's ruling, but agreed to stop a pending execution.
Justices also agreed to decide whether voter identification laws unfairly deter poor and minority Americans from voting, stepping into a contentious partisan issue in advance of the 2008 elections.
The justices will hear arguments early next year in a challenge to an Indiana law that requires voters to present photo ID before casting their ballots. The state has defended the law as a way to combat voter fraud.
The state Democratic party and civil rights groups complained that the law unfairly targets poor and minority voters, without any evidence that in-person voter fraud exists in Indiana.
Courts have upheld voter ID laws in Arizona and Michigan, but struck down Missouri's. In June, the Georgia Supreme Court threw out a challenge to that state's voter ID law but sidestepped a decision on whether the requirement was constitutional.
The Indiana law enacted in 2005 was upheld by a federal judge and by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Before the law's passage, an Indiana voter had only to sign a poll book at the polling place, where a photo copy of the voter's signature was kept on file for comparison.
"The purpose of the Indiana law is to reduce voting fraud, and voting fraud impairs the right of legitimate voters to vote by diluting their votes," Judge Richard Posner said in his majority opinion.
But in a dissent, Judge Terence Evans said, "Let's not beat around the bush. The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by folks believed to skew Democratic."
The voter ID challenge was among 17 new cases accepted by the court in advance of the start of its new term on Monday.
The court also agreed to review the case of a man who successfully challenged a drug charge arising from his illegal arrest for driving on a suspended license.
Many state and federal courts say that failing to follow state law in making an arrest does not require that subsequently seized evidence be suppressed. But the Virginia Supreme Court ruled otherwise in the case of David Lee Moore, and state officials asked the justices to consider the issue.
Two police detectives stopped Moore for driving on a suspended license, but under Virginia law they should have issued him a summons and released him rather than taking him into custody.
The Virginia Supreme Court said the officers could not lawfully conduct the search that followed his arrest, which turned up crack cocaine.
A trial judge ruled against Moore's challenge to the drug charge and he was convicted and sentenced to 3½ years in prison. The Virginia Supreme Court subsequently ordered the charge dismissed and Moore was freed. E-mail to a friend
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