SEVEN YEARS AGO, when the District's court system was being reorganized, a lot of people - ourselves included - though we were getting the equivalent of a state court system. Well, we were wrong. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that under the reorganization, the District does not have one of the critical features of such a system: People who are convicted in Superior Court - unlike those in comparable circumstances in the states - will not be able to take a claim that their rights have been violated to the regular federal courts. The Justices said that the reorganization plan had eliminated that possibility.
What this means is that people who run afoul of a criminal law in the District will be able to assert their claims of constitutional deprivation only in its courts. It also means that the District's new Court of Appeals has a role in constitutional interpretation superior to that of any state supreme court. Decisions of the highest court of any state concerning federal constitutional rights, for example, can be and are upset by federal district and appellate judges. But decisions of the District's highest court cannot be.
This situation might well be called the last revenge of John Mitchell's Department of Justice. The Department's support was crucial to the passage of the 1970 reorganization bill. Indeed, the bill was drafted by its lawyers and it decided to give its support largely on grounds that this was a way of eliminating the role the liveral United States Court of Appeals had had in criminal justice in Washington.
Many who believed the Court of APpeals had been generally sound and who defended it against Justice Department attacks, supported the reorganization proposal knowing full well it would end the Court of Appeals' direct role in criminal justice here. This was seen as a necessary trade: a new and better set of local courts, and a step toward home rule seemed worth the reduction in importance of the Court of Appeals. But few understood that the bill Congress passed would take the Court of Appeals completely out of the criminal justice field here. We doubt that the legislation would have passed if this particular part of it had been fully understood.
There is a remedy. What Congress has taken away, Congress can restore. It should pass legislation immediately to provide for this city the equivalent of a state court system. There is no justification for giving people who are brought before the District's local courts a lesser opportunity to vindicate their rights than is given to people brought before local courts elsewhere in the country.