Justices rush to examine new law Supreme Court to rule on limits to appeals by death row inmates

May 04, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Moving swiftly to answer a tough new constitutional question, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to rule within weeks on Congress' power to end prison inmates' repeated attempts to overturn their convictions and sentences.

Nine days after President Clinton signed into law a broad exercise of that power in the new anti-terrorism law, the court granted early review of the constitutionality of key parts of the measure.

Treating the dispute almost as an emergency matter, the court -- by a vote of 5-4 -- set a hearing for June 3, with indications it will decide the case before recessing for the summer later in June. It has not sped up a case in that fashion since it considered flag-burning as a form of political protest six years ago. The procedure is seldom used.

The five-justice majority appeared eager to settle doubts about the constitutionality of Congress' attempt to reach what has been a goal for years of police, prosecutors, politicians and judges: to stop, or severely curtail, inmates' rights to appeal to federal court repeatedly with constitutional complaints, a pattern that some criticize for the delays, especially those that postpone executions for many years.

In a year when crime is a major political issue, Congress and the president joined to embrace the new restrictions as part of a measure prompted by the Oklahoma City bombing a year ago.

Conservative members of the court have worked for years, in a string of decisions, to narrow the protection for multiple court challenges by inmates. Some of those rulings were part of a backlash to rulings issued years ago, when liberal justices, who dominated the court, expanded prisoners' rights to make multiple challenges.

The new law goes further than any of the court's recent efforts to limit those rights.

The four justices who make up the court's liberal bloc dissented yesterday, protesting that the majority was acting with "unseemly haste."

When the court reaches a final decision, however, those justices are more likely than the majority to overturn the new limits.

At issue is how far Congress may go to restrict one of the most deeply embedded civil rights in the U.S. Constitution: the right to ask a court, through a writ of habeas corpus, to release someone based on a claim that he or she is wrongly being held or punished.

That right dates back at least to 1215 and the Magna Carta grant of rights by England's King John.

The first inmate in a U.S. prison who has been blocked from federal court as a result of the new curbs on habeas corpus -- Ellis Wayne Felker, 48, who is on Georgia's death row -- persuaded the justices to consider his claims that Congress has intruded deeply into the powers of federal courts. The law, he contended, will result in arbitrary denial of individual rights.

Felker was within an hour Thursday of being put to death in the electric chair when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy blocked the execution. The rest of the court further delayed the execution while Felker's appeal is studied.

Felker, who ran a leather-goods shop in Warner Robins, Ga., was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder nearly 15 years ago of Evelyn Joy Ludlam, a student at Macon Junior College.

A day after Felker offered her a job, the 19-year-old woman was missing. After two weeks, her body was found floating in a creek in the neighboring county. She had been sexually attacked.

The Supreme Court will decide whether Congress acted unconstitutionally. The new law bars any appeals to the Supreme Court after a lower court has refused to let an inmate file further challenges after a first one fails.

Under habeas corpus law, inmates have several chances to challenge their convictions and sentences. After the jury's guilty verdict, they may appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

If they lose in that round, they may then try to use the habeas corpus route to make new challenges in federal court. The

anti-terrorism law basically leaves the first round intact but then imposes sharp new limits on any further challenges.

Only if an inmate raises a new issue, and only if that issue is likely to help the inmate prove innocence of the crime, can such further challenges go ahead.

In Felker's case, he had one direct appeal and one trip through a federal habeas court. Both efforts failed, and he tried to start a second habeas challenge. His latest move was blocked this week by a federal appeals court that relied on the new habeas restriction.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas voted to speed up review of the case. Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, Stevens were opposed.

Habeas corpus

The Constitution provides broad protection for convicted criminals who want to go to federal court to claim they are being held or punished in violation of their rights. That protection is provided by this clause:

"The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it."

Pub Date: 5/04/96

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