The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the federal courts here have no role in purely local criminal cases, asserting that the judges of the D.C. court system have the competence to decide all issues, even constitutional ones.
The high court's decision reversed an 8-to-1 ruling more than a year and a half ago by the U.S. Court of Appeals here. The appellate court had sought to reserve to itself and the lower U.S. District Court the right to rule on constitutional questions in criminal cases once they had been decided by Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Such reviews on constitutional issues are allowed in the federal courts in the 50 states after a defendant has been convicted in a state court.
But the Supreme Court ruled that the District is a special case in that all judges in the city court system here are appointed by the President, and are "presumed competent to decide all issues, including constitutional issues . . ."
The ruling upholds a section of the D.C. Court Reorganization Act, which greatly expanded the powers and scope of the city's court system and placed purely local crimes such as murder, robbery and rape in the 44-member D.C. Superior Court that the act established.
The court reorganization plan, passed during the "law-and-order" years of the Nixon administration, took those cases and those of a similar violent nature out of the overcrowded federal court system here.
One of the results - praised by most law enforcement officials here including prosecutors and police - was to remove the appellate review of criminal cases from the liberal U.S. Court of Appeals and place it in the more conservative D.C. Court of Appeals.
Defense attorneys contended, however, that their clients still had a right of access to the U.S. District Court here and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals even after going through the city court system.
The federal appeals court, led by U.S. Circuit Chief Judge Davis L. Bazelon, has been seen for more than a decade as probably the most liberal federal appellate court in the country.
Its opinions in criminal cases have been praised by civil liberties groups for protecting the rights of defendants, but have been criticized harshly by prosecutors and police as limiting the ability of the government to fight crime.
A group of Justice Department officials - led by attorney Donald Santarelli Jr. and including the current U.S. Attorney here, Earl J. Silbert, and the second-ranking federal prosecutor here, Carl S. Rauh - worked for years on the court reorganization bill.
The main stated purpose of the reorganization act was to make the over-burdened federal court system here more like those in the rest of the country, freeing the federal judges to devote their time to questions of national importance.
One largely unspoken but recognized side effect was to wrest power away from the Bazelon court, which was regarded by Justice Department officials and other law enforcement officers as too liberal and was often described in derogatory terms in prosecutors' meetings.
The section of the reorganization act upheld yesterday by the Supreme Court reportedly was based on the premise that all possible reviews of city criminal cases belong in city courts here - despite practices in the 50 states - and has been staunchly supported by the Justice Department.
The Supreme Court ruling came in a case involving Jasper C. Pressley, who was convicted of grand larceny in D.C. Superior Court for stealing a typewriter and other property and sentenced to 20 to 60 months in prison. His conviction was affirmed by the D.C. Court of Appeals.
He then came to federal court here to challenge his conviction, contending that he had been denied his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel. Such an approach is allowed in the 50 states.
The government argued, and U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell essentially agreed, that under the D.C. Court Reorganization Act that such actions could only be filed in the city court system. The only appeal from that system is directly to the Supreme Court.
Gesell's ruling was appealed by the defendant to the federal appeals court, which reasserted its right to review constitutional issues in criminal cases here. The only dissenter on the U.S. Court of Appeals was U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Robb, one of three Nixon appointees on that court.
In asking the Supreme Court to review the case, the Justice Department said a District defendant's right to come to the federal courts here for post-conviction review of his case was expressly eliminated by the court reorganization act.
In his majority opinion released yesterday, Justice John Paul Stevens agreed. He said the court reorganization statute "could not be more plain" and that the Supreme Court was required "simply to read it as it is written."
He said there was no indication that the Superior Court was either "ineffective or inadequate" to review post-conviction claims, and that therefore the court-reorganization statute was legal.
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote a separate opinion agreeing with Stevens.