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Hands Off Habeas

Friday, August 19, 2005

PROPONENTS OF the so-called Streamlined Procedures Act justify this radical piece of legislation by citing the supposedly intrusive scrutiny of federal courts of state capital convictions and the delays that ensue. So it is particularly instructive that chief justices of the nation's state court systems have voted overwhelmingly to urge Congress to slow down. The chief justices would be, after all, the apparent beneficiaries of the bill, which would gut federal review of the convictions they oversee. Yet in a strongly worded resolution by the Conference of Chief Justices -- with only the chief justice of death-happy Texas voting no -- the heads of state judicial systems said in essence, "Thanks, but no thanks." Cooler heads in Congress ought to listen.

The bill, pushed in the Senate by Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and in the House by Daniel E. Lungren (R-Calif.), would be an unmitigated disaster. Habeas corpus is the centuries-old device by which inmates challenge the legality of their detentions. In modern times it has become the essential vehicle by which convicts on death row or serving lengthy prison terms attack their state-court convictions. Many innocent people owe their freedom to their ability to file habeas petitions.

Yet in many death cases, the most drastic versions of the bill would eliminate federal review entirely. Even where they didn't do that, they would create onerous procedural roadblocks and prevent federal courts from considering key issues. They would bar federal courts from reviewing most capital sentencing and create arbitrary timetables for federal appeals courts to handle these cases. All of which, you might think, would be music to the ears of state court justices, for whom it is a big blank check.

Unless, of course, those chief justices are interested in, well, justice. The resolution, adopted jointly with the Conference of State Court Administrators, notes that "the changes contemplated in these measures may preclude state defendants in both capital and non-capital matters from seeking habeas corpus relief" with "unknown consequences for the state courts and for the administration of justice." It recommends "delaying further action" pending additional study to evaluate whether change in current law is even necessary. If it is, the justices urge Congress "to consider appropriate targeted measures that will ameliorate the documented problems and avoid depriving the federal courts of their traditional jurisdiction without more supporting evidence."

The Senate Judiciary Committee is poised to take up a somewhat less dire version of the bill when Congress returns. This rebuke ought to give senators pause about even that. At a minimum, any senator contemplating voting for it needs to ask why the Senate should be insulating state courts from review against their apparent will.

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