State cases in federal courts violate principles of federalism

April 20, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

WANTED: A conservative president who really is one.

President Bush is simply not filling the bill. His Department of Education has peeved Nebraska school officials, who have the curious notion that they, not the federal government, know best how to solve the state's educational woes.

That a state should have to tell a supposedly conservative president this is ridiculous. Whatever became of those cherished conservative principles of states' rights and a federal government with limited powers?

Closer to home, attorneys for Bush's Department of Justice have been a pain in Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly's neck. The matter involves Cassilly, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio and a suspect in the killing of a Baltimore 8-year-old, Marciana Ringo, whose body was found in Harford County in December.

Sun reporter Gail Gibson wrote two stories on the dispute last week. DiBiagio wanted first crack at the suspect, Jamal Abeokuto, and sought to have the feds try him first on extortion charges.

Cassilly cried foul. Abeokuto should be tried on murder charges in state court first, Cassilly maintained, and wrote a letter to Justice Department officials telling them so.

How did the conservative Mr. Bush, and his supposedly conservative Attorney General John Ashcroft, respond? Through the words of one Guy A. Lewis, the director of the U.S. attorneys division. According to Gibson, Lewis wrote this insipid pap:

"A carefully considered mutual accommodation is both in the interest of justice and allows for the best presentation of your respective cases." Lewis advised Cassilly and DiBiagio to come up with an "agreeable plan."

In other words: Work it out, boys. Play nice with others. So good to hear from you. Now, sayonara.

That's not quite the response we would expect to hear from a conser- vative administration, one committed to the principle of federalism. (Note to Bush and Ashcroft: the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines federalism as "a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units." Just thought I'd tell you in case you didn't know, since you obviously don't. The italics are mine, by the way. No thanks needed.)

Under the American form of federalism, governing is divided between the states and a federal government with limited power. (Darn, there go those italics again.) Those politically incorrect and much-maligned Founding Fathers meant for those charged with state crimes to be tried in state courts. When there's a conflict - such as the one where Abeokuto faces state and federal charges - the Founding White Guys would have no problem with Abeokuto being tried in Harford County first.

This tale supposedly had a happy ending. Gibson reported Friday that DiBiagio agreed to let Harford County try Abeokuto first. But a commitment to federalism wasn't the reason. DiBiagio reached his decision after Ringo's family pleaded with him to let the state case be tried first. The "ship-it-to-federal-court-itis" running rampant in these parts hasn't abated one iota.

Baltimore's state's attorney's office is the one with the most severe case of "ship-it-to-federal-court-itis." Had Ringo been murdered within city limits, DiBiagio would be trying Abeokuto on extortion and murder charges. Anyone skeptical of that claim need only look at the pattern.

Eric D. Stennett, a street punk facing street punk charges in state court, gets his case kicked up to federal court.

The Lexington Terrace Boys, charged with a string of murders, will be tried on the federal level.

Darrell L. Brooks, suspected in firebombing the Dawson family's home, will face a federal judge.

Jamal D. Barnes was recently convicted in federal court, not state court, of murdering Yvette A. Beakes.

What's the justification for such a flagrant violation of the principles of federalism? We're told that it will get violent criminals off the streets longer, that federal courts mete out tougher sentences and have higher conviction rates.

Oh really? Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say stacking the deck against a defendant is a good reason for kicking a state court case up to the federal level?

It's not in there. Mr. Bush and Mr. Ashcroft need to tell all their U.S. attorneys it's not in there and instruct them to tell state prosecutors afflicted with "ship-it-to-federal-court-itis" to find a cure.

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