State chief justices oppose bill to speed death penalty appeals

Judges cite `overriding concern ... with fairness'

August 06, 2005|By Henry Weinstein | Henry Weinstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Chief justices of state courts have urged the U.S. Senate not to pass a bill aimed at speeding death penalty appeals.

The resolution passed overwhelmingly by the Conference of Chief Justices this week was the latest opposition to the Streamlined Procedures Act, introduced in the Senate by Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, and the House by Dan Lungren, a California Republican. Only the chief justice of Texas' Supreme Court voted against the resolution, according to several justices who were present.

This year, Kyl and Lungren introduced virtually identical bills in the Senate and House to remedy what they call "endless delays" between convictions in capital cases and executions.

Kyl and Lungren say restrictions Congress passed in 1996 have not been sufficient.

But critics say the legislation would drastically restrict federal courts' ability to consider petitions from state prisoners who say that their constitutional rights have been violated or that they have evidence that they are innocent.

More criticism

In addition to the chief justices, the measure has drawn criticism from some conservative legal organizations, including the Rutherford Institute, whose president said the measure could lead to the execution of innocent people. More than 50 former prosecutors and more than a dozen former federal judges also have weighed in against the bill.

"I am very much in favor of trying to speed up the criminal justice process, including capital cases," said Ronald M. George, California's chief justice, who supports the death penalty and twice argued death penalty cases in the U.S. Supreme Court when he worked for the California attorney general's office.

"But there is an overriding concern I and my fellow justices have with fairness," said George, whose state has the nation's largest death row - currently 630 inmates.

`Troubling' legislation

George said his review of the legislation indicated that it would overturn some recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that had given new hearings to prisoners on death row. "Those Rehnquist court decisions would not have been possible if this legislation had been in effect. That is troubling to me; it was troubling to my colleagues," George said.

Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer expressed similar views. "What we are saying to the [Senate Judiciary] Committee members is `don't rush this through,'" said Moyer, a Republican and the longest-serving chief justice in the nation.

The proposed restrictions could significantly reduce the legal rights of death-row inmates, said Ralph Cappy, Pennsylvania's chief justice and a Democrat. "In a very delicate area where you are concerned with possible actual innocence in post-conviction hearings ... that gives us great pause," Cappy said.

Prisoners on death row generally reach federal courts using a legal petition known as habeas corpus - a method of challenging allegedly illegal imprisonment. The petition gives an inmate a day in court to assert that his constitutional rights were violated at trial, leading to a serious error in the case.

The pending measures "may preclude state defendants in both capital and non-capital" cases from seeking relief in the federal courts "and may deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction in the vast majority of these matters, all with unknown consequences for the state courts and the administration of justice," the chief justices said in their resolution, passed at the group's annual meeting in Charleston, S.C.

Further study sought

The justices urged that additional study and analysis be undertaken to evaluate the 1996 law "and the causes of unwarranted delay, if any" before Congress passes any new legislation on the subject.

Wallace B. Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, said he voted no on the resolution simply because he has not had sufficient time to review the measure. Texas is one of only two states in the nation which has, in effect, two supreme courts - the one Jefferson heads, which reviews only civil cases, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Shortly before Congress adjourned for the summer, Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill that would substantially amend the Kyl measure. The committee is supposed to take up the bill sometime this fall.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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