A governor's decision.
Gary Haugen will have to wait to die.
That reality - the result of an Oregon Supreme Court decision Thursday that upheld Gov. John Kitzhaber's temporary reprieve for the twice-convicted killer facing execution - will upset some Oregonians. Many believe that death is the necessary punishment for the hideous crimes of a death row inmate who had taken the extraordinary step of asking the court to allow the state to kill him even though its chief executive had blocked his lethal injection.
But the court was right to rule that the governor has clear legal authority to delay Haugen's execution, despite the inmate's adamant insistence that he should be allowed to waive all appeals and speed his execution.
Article V, Section 14, of the Oregon Constitution unequivocally defines the governor's power to issue reprieves, commutations and pardons "after conviction" for all offenses. As the court's unanimous decision, authored by Chief Justice Thomas Balmer, states, "The Oregon Constitution does not provide the recipient of a governor's act of clemency with a corresponding individual right to reject that clemency. In fact, in describing the governor's power to grant pardons, commutations, and reprieves, the constitutional text does not refer to the recipient of the grant of clemency at all."
In other words, governors reprieve, death row inmates receive. Haugen, despite his fierce desire to die, will have to wait until Kitzhaber leaves office, and perhaps longer if death penalty opponents succeed in putting a measure on a ballot that asks voters to end the death penalty in Oregon.
When Kitzhaber issued the reprieve to Haugen weeks before he was set to be executed in 2011, the governor was reacting to a death-penalty system that he views as deeply flawed and unjust. In addition to issuing Haugen's reprieve, the governor vowed to block all other executions during his tenure in office.
In his appeal, Haugen argued that the governor had issued what he falsely depicted as a reprieve but actually was an illegal attempt to impede the state's death penalty law. The court rightly ruled that the governor's motivation was irrelevant. What mattered was whether the governor has the constitutional authority to grant a reprieve to a death row inmate - even if that inmate does not accept it and wants to be executed.
That authority, the court concluded, is absolute, and it is not dependent on the reasons that a governor has for granting clemency.
As the state noted in a brief to the court, "Kings, presidents and governors have long possessed the power to grant individuals clemency in the form of a reprieve, thereby temporarily suspending or delaying an inmate's sentence. An inmate simply possesses no power to reject an unconditional reprieve and force his government to execute him." Haugen may want to die, and the governor's actions may run counter to the state's death penalty law. But his power to grant clemency is beyond debate.
When he announced the reprieve for Haugen, Kitzhaber pointedly declined to commute Haugen's sentence, saying that decision belongs to Oregonians who he hoped would engage in a statewide debate over this most critical of issues.
That debate has yet to happen. It should. The death penalty in Oregon, as elsewhere, is morally wrong and unjustly administered. Kitzhaber is justified in calling it a "perversion of justice," and that is why a growing number of states have chosen to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a far more practical form of retribution - life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The court's ruling should prompt a statewide debate over the death penalty. As for Haugen's opinion on the matter, it is, as the court made clear, completely irrelevant.