LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's execution law Friday, calling it unconstitutional.
In a split decision, the high court sided with 10 death row inmates who argued that, under Arkansas' constitution, only the Legislature can set execution policy. Legislators in 2009 voted to give that authority to the Department of Correction.
"It is evident to this court that the Legislature has abdicated its responsibility and passed to the executive branch, in this case the (Arkansas Department of Correction), the unfettered discretion to determine all protocol and procedures, most notably the chemicals to be used, for a state execution," Justice Jim Gunter wrote in the majority opinion.
Two justices of the seven-member court dissented, arguing that the correction department's discretion is not "unfettered" because it is bound by the federal and state constitutions that guard against cruel and unusual punishment.
"In addition, Arkansas is left no method of carrying out the death penalty in cases where it has been lawfully imposed," Justice Karen Baker wrote in the dissent.
The 2009 law says a death sentence is to be carried out by lethal injection of one or more chemicals that the director of the Department of Correction chooses. The law also says that in the event that the lethal injection law is found to be unconstitutional, death sentences will be carried out by electrocution.
It wasn't immediately clear what the court's ruling will mean for the 40 men on death row in Arkansas. There aren't any pending executions, and the state hasn't put anyone to death since 2005, in part because of legal challenges like this one.
Death row inmate Jack Harold Jones Jr. sued the head of the correction department in 2010. Nine other inmates later joined the suit, asking that the law be struck down.
The state, meanwhile, asked the court to free up several executions it had halted because of this lawsuit.
Josh Lee, an attorney for the death row inmates who challenged the law, declined to comment Friday.
During oral arguments last week, Lee said the state would have two options if the court found the law unconstitutional.
"The Legislature could either choose to stick with the 1983 statute, which everybody concedes is constitutional, or the Legislature could decide we want to amend it." Lee said last week.
A spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The state adopted lethal injection as its method of capital punishment in 1983. There have been legal challenges to the way the state kills its condemned prisoners since then. In 2009, in the midst of a legal battle over lethal injection, the state Legislature passed the law that the court struck down Friday.
Joseph Cordi, an attorney for the state, told the Supreme Court last week that he thought the state would fall back on the 1983 law if the court struck down the entire 2009 statute.
Prisons spokeswoman Dina Tyler said Friday that she hasn't seen the ruling.