EVERY TWO years since 1982, usually close to Election Day, Congress passes a doozy of an anti-crime bill designed to funnel many millions of federal dollars to the states for law enforcement purposes. These bills are also vehicles for get-tough provisions that are not necessarily wise but are hard to vote against. This year is no exception. The Senate has passed a bill that, among other things, authorizes the death penalty for 34 offenses and also unwisely curtails federal habeas corpus proceedings -- challenges to convictions made after appeals and collateral attacks in state courts have been exhausted -- in death penalty cases.
Both are extremely bad ideas. But it is unlikely that when the House takes up the crime bill next week either provision will be entirely eliminated. Still, on these two issues, the bill before the House is preferable to the one passed by the Senate. The House bill, for example, would authorize capital punishment for only 10 offenses. This is at least a smaller step in the wrong direction than the Senate bill.
The changes in habeas corpus procedures are more complicated. Concerns have been expressed from two directions. Chief Justice Rehnquist and others have complained that the federal courts are inundated by petitions from prisoners whose appeals and state habeas corpus reviews have been completed. Repeated filings are most common in death penalty cases because they delay the carrying out of the sentence. At the same time, others have recommended changes that would ensure competent legal representation of capital case defendants during trial, appellate and habeas corpus proceedings in both state and federal courts.
After studies and recommendations by a committee chaired by retired justice Lewis Powell, by the full Judicial Conference and by the American Bar Association, the House Judiciary Committee has put together a proposal that is addressed to both concerns. It imposes a one-year statute of limitations on the filing of federal habeas corpus petitions and bars successive applications except in narrow circumstances relating to guilt or innocence, or the validity of the sentence. To balance these restrictions, the bill mandates the appointment of qualified counsel and reverses a recent Supreme Court decision that greatly restricts the kind of constitutional questions that can be raised in habeas petitions. This compromise has broad support from judges, civil liberties groups and the American Bar Association, and attempts to restructure it on the House floor should be resisted.