Lawsuit says governor exceeded powers on death penalty

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The 11 men on Nebraska's death row can't be executed because their death sentences were converted to life in prison when the state's death penalty was repealed in 2015, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska's complaint also says Gov. Pete Ricketts overstepped the Nebraska Constitution's separation of powers clause because he funded and controlled the petition drive that led to a vote to restore the death penalty the following year.

The lawsuit names Ricketts, the prisons department and several officials, and seeks a court order barring the state from carrying out any executions. No execution dates have been set for any of the 11 men.

The governor's office criticized the ACLU's lawsuit.

"This liberal advocacy group has repeatedly worked to overturn the clear voice of the Nebraska people on the issue of capital punishment and waste taxpayer dollars with frivolous litigation," the office said in a statement

After lawmakers abolished the death penalty, they overrode Ricketts' veto. Death penalty supporters responded with a ballot petition drive partially financed by Ricketts. Voters overturned the Legislature's decision and restored the punishment in November 2016.

The result of the ballot initiative should not stand, the lawsuit said, because it resulted from extensive illegal abuses of the governor's power. The separation of powers clause bars anyone in any branch of state government from exercising powers over another branch. But Ricketts ordered or encouraged members of the executive branch and his allies in the Legislature and local governments to work for the referendum campaign or publicly support it, the complaint says.

Ricketts' office said it "holds itself to a high standard and follows state law regarding the use of taxpayer resources."

The legislation that repealed the death penalty contained a provision to make the change retroactive and convert the death row inmates' sentences.

The lawsuit acknowledges that enough petition signatures were submitted to suspend the repeal of capital punishment, pending the referendum vote. However, it says the suspension didn't take effect until the signatures were verified, which happened on Oct. 16, 2015, almost two months after the death penalty repeal law went into effect on Aug. 30, 2015.

"The repeal did not further declare that the penalty for (the inmates') crimes was changed once more to death; accordingly, all such prisoners remain subject to a penalty of life imprisonment," according to the lawsuit.

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