DURING THE PAST WEEK, we have devoted a lot of space to the proposed federal criminal code. We have done so because, in our view, it is one of the most important - and least understood - pieces of legislation to have come before Congress in years. This code has been in the making for over a decade. Yet the House Judiciary subcommittee responsible for handling the measure seems unsure of what it should do with the version the Senate passed last January.
At a subcommittee meeting a few days ago, several subcommittee members said they were staggered by the size of the job they have been asked to undertake. We can see why, since the job is enormous. But the more important fact is that revision of the federal criminal law has been on the legislative agenda since Jan. 7, 1971, when the Brown Commission made its recommendations. It is incredible, therefore, that after seven years of well-publicized work in the Senate some members of the House committee to which the subject has been routinely and predictably referred are only now realizing what is involved.
Several years ago, the decision was made in the House to let the Senate act first on the new code, largely because the late Sen. John L. McClellan was then so deeply interested in it. The work the Senate did in producing its version of the code has greatly simplified the work of the House. The basic issues and the areas of controversy have all been clearly identified, either in the voluminous literature that has grown up around the code or in the hearings held by the House committee this year. All that remains is for the committee to face those issues and make decisions on them. It would be a travesty of the legislative process for the committee to push the subject aside because it is "too difficult" or "too complex" for its members to handle.
We have discussed in previous editorials the provisions of the code (as it was passed by the Senate) that the House committee ought to eliminate or modify. With those changes, and perhaps a few others, the code would become a landmark in the history of American law. The need for it - and not just selected parts of it, as some have suggested - is as great now as it was in 1966 when Congress started the process of revision by establishing the Brown Commission.
The existing federal criminal law is a disgrace, intelligible only to those who spend their lives searching through its intricacies. The proposed code offers an opportunity to make it understandable to all, citizens and legislators as well as trial judges and lawyers. That opportunity must not be lost.