Supreme Court finds no defect in law limiting inmate appeals Justices agree to consider a 'last-chance' challenge

June 29, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, moving swiftly to uphold a new federal law, ruled unanimously yesterday that Congress acted constitutionally when it shut off repeated attempts by prison inmates -- including those on death row -- to overturn their convictions and sentences.

Just nine weeks after Congress stripped inmates of most of their rights to make repeated appeals in federal courts, and strictly limited the Supreme Court's role in such cases, the court found no constitutional defect in the law.

The standards for appealing in federal court under the law are so strict that the ruling in favor of it "really will box everyone out, at all levels" when a prisoner tries to pursue multiple appeals, Larry Yackle, a Boston University law professor and an expert on such appeals, said yesterday.

The justices did save for themselves a last-chance opportunity to weigh an inmate's second, third or later challenge to a conviction or sentence.

Congress, the court ruled, had not taken away that chance, available when an inmate appeals directly to the justices, bypassing lower federal courts. But, the court stressed in an opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, such last-chance appeals to the highest court seldom succeed.

In fact, the court, using that ultimate authority in the case before it, rejected the constitutional challenges of a Georgia death-row inmate, saying he had put forth no "exceptional circumstances" to justify a decision in his favor.

That part of the ruling, Yackle said, indicated that the court "may not be willing to expend a lot of resources" exercising the power left to it.

Even so, the ruling is likely to put the court's own staff much more heavily in the business of processing multiple appeals by state prison inmates, now that those are all but barred from lower federal courts.

"I would expect an increase in the number of petitions" to the Supreme Court, Yackle said. "I don't see how that wouldn't be true."

Yesterday's ruling was a dramatic development in a controversy that has persisted for years. In recent years, the court has steadily pared down the options of state prison inmates to ask federal courts to review their cases.

For years, Congress has discussed laws that would go further to reduce state prisoners' federal court cases. Until this year, those discussions went nowhere. The effort finally succeeded this year, when the lawmakers passed -- and President Clinton signed into law in April -- broad new curbs on prisoner appeals.

Only one part of the new law was before the court yesterday: provisions that require state prisoners who have made one unsuccessful trip through the federal courts to get permission before starting a new federal challenge.

That law gives federal courts of appeals authority to act as federal court "gatekeepers" for multiple appeals. Those gate-keeping decisions, Congress made clear, could not be challenged on appeal to the Supreme Court -- a restriction the justices upheld.

Yesterday's ruling came in the case of the first inmate in a U.S. prison who had been blocked from federal court as a result of the new federal law, Ellis Wayne Felker, 48.

As a result of the decision, Georgia is now free to seek a date to execute Felker. A leather-goods store operator in Warner Robins, Ga., Felker was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder nearly 15 years ago of Evelyn Joy Ludlam, a student at Macon Junior College.

Pub Date: 6/29/96

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