On Saturday, a federal trial court stayed the execution of John Errol Ferguson, a mentally ill Florida man who has paranoid schizophrenia and believes that he is the “Prince of God.” Late yesterday, in a rushed order handed down shortly after they received the briefs in this case, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated this stay. Ferguson is scheduled to be executed today.
The outcome of yesterday’s decision was probably decided as soon as the identity of this three-judge panel was announced. Judge Edward Carnes was known as “the premier death penalty advocate in the country” when he left his job as Alabama’s chief death penalty prosecutor to ascend to the federal bench. Judge William Pryor was only confirmed to the Senate as part of the misguided “Gang of 14” deal that placed several of George W. Bush’s most ideological appointees on the bench. Ferguson would have had an easier time convincing Justice Scalia to tattoo the words “God Bless Obamacare” on his forehead than he would convincing this severely conservative panel to stay an execution.
Nevertheless, the panel’s order is both unfortunate and irregular. It is unfortunate because the trial court did not issue a particularly broad order. Rather, it merely stayed Ferguson’s execution long enough to hold a hearing and avoid rushing to judgment on whether or not a man should be killed. Yesterday’s rushed order stands for the proposition that two appellate judges who have virtually no time to consider a case are better suited to answer questions of life and death than someone who actually takes the time to hear the best arguments on either side.
The panel’s order is irregular because, as Judge Charles Wilson points out in dissent, the pair of conservative judges did not simply lift the lower court’s stay, they decided on their own that Ferguson’s case lacks merit and his petition for relief should be denied outright. This is not the proper way for a court of appeals to act. Rather, their job is to allow the trial judge to fully develop the evidentiary record in a case, and only weigh in on key legal questions after they have been fully considered by the court below. In their apparent zeal to see Ferguson executed, Carnes and Pryor overstepped their rightful authority.
Ferguson will no doubt appeal the panel’s decision to the Supreme Court. The justices, however, already turned away Ferguson’s plea to save his life once.