LITTLE ROCK — A Pulaski County circuit judge on Thursday struck down a provision in Arkansas’ lethal-injection law that requires information about the suppliers of execution drugs to be kept secret, a ruling that the state attorney general’s office said it would appeal.

LITTLE ROCK — A Pulaski County circuit judge on Thursday struck down a provision in Arkansas’ lethal-injection law that requires information about the suppliers of execution drugs to be kept secret, a ruling that the state attorney general’s office said it would appeal.


Judge Wendell Griffen issued the ruling in a lawsuit by a group of death-row inmates challenging the law. The Legislature wrote the secrecy provision into the law earlier this year in response to difficulties the state Department of Correction had encountered in obtaining execution drugs.


In a 32-page order, Griffen said Thursday the Department of Correction must provide information requested by the inmates no later than noon Friday.


On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office filed a notice of appeal and motion for the Arkansas Supreme Court to issue a stay of all proceedings in the case at the circuit court level or, alternatively, a temporary stay of Griffen’s order.


"Attorney General Rutledge has a duty to defend the state’s lethal injection statute and disagrees with Judge Griffen’s order," spokesman Judd Deere said.


In his order granting partial summary judgment to the inmates, Griffen said the secrecy provision of Act 1096 of 2015 violates Article 2, Section 6 and Article 2, Section 17, of the Arkansas Constitution and is therefore null and void.


Article 2, Section 6, guarantees freedom of the press. Article 2, Section 17, states that no law impairing the obligation of contacts shall be passed — which is what the inmates say happened when the Legislature approved a law requiring non-disclosure of information that the state previously agreed to disclose in the settlement of a earlier suit by the inmates.


Griffen rejected arguments by the state that disclosure of information about the suppliers of execution drugs would subject the suppliers to criticism or negative publicity and make it difficult for the state to obtain execution drugs.


The judge said in his order that the inmates’ request is for information about drugs already obtained, so disclosing the information would not prevent the state from obtaining the drugs. He also said there is "no constitutional right for a governmental vendor, including a vendor which supplies lethal injection drugs used for capital punishment, to enjoy governmental protection from criticism."


The state had asked that if Griffen were to rule in the inmates’ favor on the disclosure issue, he at least order the inmates’ attorneys not to disclose the information to their clients. He declined and said that contending that the court should disregard the laws governing attorney-client relationships "is not only unfair — it is unethical."


Griffen also rejected the state’s argument that ordering disclosure of the information would prematurely dispose of the entire case. Material issues of fact remain as to whether the drugs would subject the inmates to cruel and unusual punishment, he said.


The judge did side with the state on one issue: He rejected an argument by the plaintiffs that Act 1096 violates the doctrine of separation of powers.


Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday when asked about the ruling, "It’s troubling, and what’s troubling about it is that the Legislature passed a law ensuring confidentiality to suppliers in the sale of those drugs to the state of Arkansas. A sale is accomplished based upon that law and that promise of confidentiality, and here a judge, without a ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court on the constitutionality of that law, says, ‘You’re not going to get a delay, you’re not going to get a stay, you’ve got to turn that information over.’"


The governor said the state Supreme Court previously issued a stay of all scheduled executions in the state, "so I can’t see any necessity for the immediate disclosure of that information."


Despite Griffen’s ruling that the secrecy provision is null and void, the state Department of Correction on Thursday cited the provision in denying a Freedom of Information Act request from the Arkansas News Bureau for information on the agency’s drug suppliers.


"Act 1096 forbids us from identifying or releasing information that could be used to identify the source of any drugs purchased for use in lethal injections," agency spokeswoman Cathy Frye said in an emailed response.