LOOKING AT THE job that now confronts the House Judiciary Committee in the form of S. 1437, Chairman Peter W. Rodino said the other day, "It isn't going to be easy." He's right. S. 1437 - the proposed federal criminal code that the Senate passed last week - is 382 pages long. Only a handful of people, in and out of Congress, have mastered its details. yet the committee needs to complete its work on the bill in less than seven months if the bill is to become law this year. To give you an idea of the job facing the House, we would merely note that the Senate worked on it for seven years.
True, the House has had before it for those same seven years the basic studies on which the code is based. The Judiciary Committee looked at them from time to time but chose to let the Senate deal with the issues first. Having done that, the committee should confine itself now, as Chairman Rodino has suggested, to looking at the problem areas and focusing on the controversial provisions. There is a consensus among legal experts that most of the bill needs little additional tinkering.
There are sufficient controversies, however, to keep the committee busy all spring. The Senate beat back dozens of amendments, some proposed by those who believe certain provisions are serious threats to civil liberties, others by those who think parts of the bill are not sufficiently hard-headed. That was to be expected; the bill is full of compromises, a point that was underlined by the cooperative way in which Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) - those views on the substance of criminal law are light years apart - worked together to produce the 72-to-15 vote for the bill in the Senate.
We have already pointed out one section - the renewal of the Logan Act - that ought not to be accepted by the House. There are others. The Senate, for example, adopted a floor amendment that would undo much of the Ball Reform Act nursed through Congress several years ago by then-Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Preventive detention may be justified in some cases, but the Senate has now made it possible in too many different situations. The House could well return the bill to the form in which it was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That version struck a better balance between the need to protect the public from violent criminals and the necessity to uphold the principle that suspects are assumed innocent until proven guilty.
Among the other provisions the House ought to change are those involving obscenity and conspiracy. The conspiracy provisions are written too expansively. They would permit a person to be convicted of a crime in which he did not participate or even know about if it was part of a conspiracy. The trouble with the obscenity provisions is that they create multiple standards by which material is to be judged. Under them, a magazine could be ruled obscene by a federal court in one state and not obscene by a federal court in an adjoining state. If the federal government is going to prosecute obscenity cases at all - and we think it should leave those cases to state and local governments - it ought to use a national standard, not one that changes from community to community.
While these and other provisions of the bill will generate considerable debate in the next few weeks, it is important that the Judiciary Committee and the full House resolve the controversies expeditiously. Arguments about the content of the new criminal code have been going for more than a decade. This is the session of Congress in which the code should be passed.