Death Row Case Tops Agenda for High Court
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court opened its 1999-2000 term yesterday, hearing a Virginia death row case that could affect inmates nationwide who challenge the constitutionality of their sentences.
In a day marked by ceremony and the surprising appearance on the bench of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court also disposed of some 1,700 appeals filed during its summer recess.
Among the most closely watched cases, the justices allowed a Tennessee school district to continue drug-testing for prospective teachers and spurned an appeal of an Arizona policy allowing tax credits for people who donate money for scholarships to religious schools--an order likely to inflame the contentious debate regarding public aid to parochial schools. The court also denied a death sentence appeal in the high-profile case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter and commentator convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981.
The first order of business after the pounding of the opening gavel was oral arguments on the appeal of Terry Williams, who was convicted in the 1985 slaying of an elderly Danville man and has been on Virginia's death row for 13 years, the longest of any current inmate. His case offers the justices a major opportunity to interpret a 1996 federal law intended to limit appeals by condemned prisoners. The overriding question is how much deference federal judges must give to state court opinions of inmates' claims.
After his conviction, Williams argued that his trial lawyer was incompetent and failed to develop evidence that would have persuaded the jury not to give him the death sentence, including information about Williams's troubled childhood, low intelligence and other mitigating factors. On appeal, family members testified about the abuse Williams endured as a child, including his being tied naked to a bed post and beaten by his father. The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately concluded, however, that even if his lawyer wrongly failed to put up such evidence, the omission did not seriously hurt Williams and the death sentence was "not fundamentally unfair or unreliable."
Williams then challenged the sentence in federal court, based on his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel at trial. The district court judge sided with the inmate, concluding that there was "a reasonable probability" that if all the evidence had been presented, at least one juror would have decided the death penalty was not warranted.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed, saying that the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a 1996 federal law intended to limit death sentence appeals, required the district court to defer to the Virginia Supreme Court's earlier opinion that Williams's case was not hurt by his arguably ineffective trial lawyer.
If that interpretation of the 1996 law prevails, it would dramatically reduce federal court involvement in prisoner allegations that their constitutional rights have been breached. Virginia, joined by 35 other states, supports the interpretation, arguing for the finality of state court judgments.
The justices themselves appeared deeply divided yesterday, with several expressing concerns that the 4th Circuit standard was too tough and would remove federal judges as an important constitutional check on state death cases.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy observed that federal courts traditionally have made independent reviews of a case to make sure the law is being applied fairly and consistently. And Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter questioned whether federal hearings would be meaningful if judges were bound by a state court's interpretation of federal law.
But Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia suggested they believed Congress was properly seeking a tough standard in the 1996 law in order to reduce federal second-guessing of state court judges. A ruling in Williams v. Taylor is likely to be handed down some time early next year.
In the drug-testing case the court declined to hear, the Knox County, Tenn., school board required all persons applying for teaching and "safety sensitive" positions to undergo urinalysis as a condition of employment. A teachers group challenged the policy, arguing that when officials have no reason to suspect an individual of using illegal drugs, such mandatory testing violates the Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld the policy, citing the "singularly critical and unique role" teachers play in society and how much they influence children, "with the potential for both good and bad."
The justices also let stand a ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court that said a state policy granting tax credits to people who give charitable contributions for scholarships and tuition grants at private schools--including religious institutions--did not violate the Constitution's requirement for separation of church and state.
The court also declined to hear the appeal of Abu-Jamal, a onetime Black Panther and journalist who received the death penalty for fatally shooting a police officer after he stopped Abu-Jamal's brother for a traffic violation. Abu-Jamal has denied the killing and insisted that he was framed. Although the Supreme Court's denial of his appeal may result in prosecutors seeking a date for Abu-Jamal's execution, he has not exhausted his possible appeals.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company