Washington: The US Supreme Court said Thursday it will examine two of the nation`s most controversial issues -- the death penalty and gay marriage -- in back-to-back sessions late next month as they wrap up their calendar for the year.
The court -- following its custom of reserving its most hot-button issues for the end of its term -- announced that on April 28 it will hear oral arguments in a case that will settle once and for all whether gay and lesbian couples have the right to marry.
The justices will address two questions: whether states are bound by the US Constitution to license a same-sex marriage, and whether a state is required to recognize same-sex marriages which took place out of state.
If they answer yes, same-sex marriage, which currently is legal in about two-thirds of US states, will be allowed in all 50.
The court justices, during two-and-a-half hour long oral arguments, will hear from plaintiffs in four states -- Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky -- where gay marriage is still banned.
In a landmark decision in June 2013, the court struck down a law denying federal benefits to homosexual couples by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But it stopped short of legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, leaving that question to the states.
What has emerged is a patchwork quilt of 36 states that allow same sex couples to marry, and the justices` ruling will harmonize those disparate state laws.
One day after hearing arguments on gay marriage, on April 29, the high court will take up the constitutionality of lethal injection -- the most common form of execution in the United States, but one that has become increasingly controversial.
The case is being brought by three death row inmates in Oklahoma, who are challenging an untested cocktail of drugs used in earlier botched executions in the state.
In 2008, the court ruled that lethal injection was constitutional, but that was before recent shortages in the most commonly used drugs prompted state officials to come up with unproven lethal medication cocktails that appeared to cause pain and suffering in inmates during some recent executions.
The plaintiffs say the execution method violates the US constitutional amendment against "cruel and unusual punishment."
Earlier this week, the southern US state of Georgia temporarily halted executions over concerns about the drugs being used.
Meanwhile, US Attorney General Eric Holder last week said he personally opposed the death penalty and would support delaying all executions until the Supreme Court issues its ruling.
Decisions in both cases are due by June, after which the justices head off for their summer break.