The chairmen of the congressional Judiciary committees were asked this week to reverse the trend of a series of Supreme Court decisions by "reopening the courthouse doors to citizens who seek to vindicate important constitutional and statutory rights.
The appeal came from 13 civil rights, consumer, environmental and citizen groups in a letter to Sen Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.).
They said that changes proposed by the administration to increase access to justice "focus primarily on streamling judicial machinery."
But, the letter said, such changes, however praiseworthy, don't "address the central problem: citizens with federal claims are denied access to justice."
The letter, whose signers included John H. F. Shattuck of the American Civil Liberties Union, Kathleen O'Reilly of the Consumer Federation of America, and Victoria Leonard of Environmental Action, said, "Fundamental rights cannot be sacrificed in the name of efficiency."
The Supreme Court's "restrictive rulings" have raised "unnecessary technical barriers" to citizen access to federal courthouses, with the result being "a senseless waste of judicial resources . . .on threshold issues rather than on the merits," the letter charged.
One line of rulings has narrowed the legal right to bring suit, or "standing" in the courts. In what the ACLU called "a particularly cruel example" of denial of standing, the Supreme Court, in the term ended tow years ago, ruled that the father of a teenager shot and killed by police had no legal right to challenge the constitutionality of a Missouri law at issue in the case. The law authoritized the police to use deadly force to apprehend unarmed suspects.
The letter urged Kennedy and Rodino to correct such problems by assigning "high priority" to legislation to liberalize standing. The sponsors of the measure are Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and Kennedy, and Reps.Robert W. Kastenmeir (D-Wis.), Herbert E. Harris II (D-Va.) and Thomas F. Railsback (R-III).