Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.), soon to be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said yesterday he will press for legislation next year to introduce the death penalty for murder, treason and kidnapping where federal laws are involved.
"I favor the death penalty," Thurmond told a crowded news conference in the committee hearing room. "As a circuit court judge in South Carolina, I had to send four people to the electric chair. It was my duty to do it. I had no alternative. I think the death penalty helps to deter crime, and I expect as chairman of this committee to do everything I can to bring about a reduction in crime in this country."
In an hour-long session with reporters, Thurmond, 77, also detailed his views on abortion, fair housing, judicial appointments, blacks, federal regulation, busing and prayer in public schools, and laid out the agenda for the Judiciary Committee under his chairmanship.
Thurmond, whose unequivocal support of capital punishment puts him at odds with the committee's outgoing chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), may have enough votes next year to pass a death penalty bill in the full committee, which now has 10 Democrats and seven Republicans.
But some observers see a tough battle over such a bill on the floors of the House and Senate. "I think Sen. Thurmond is seriously misreading the meaning of the 1980 election if he thinks there is a mandate for change on the death penalty," said John Shattuck, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Any effort to push for legislation on the death penalty will meet severe opposition in the Senate and the House."
Thurmond would make the following crimes punishable by death: murder of a federal official or a foreign official, murder on a federal reservation, fatal kidnappings, treason and espionage.
Thurmond also state his views on these subjects:
Abortion: Thurmond said he favors it only when the life of the woman is threatened or in cases on incest or rape. He raised the possibility of introducing or supporting a constitutional amendment that would limit federal funding of abortions to these instances.
Fair housing: Thurmond favors a dilution of the fair housing bill to put its enforcement more in the hands of the federal courts than in the hands of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and its administrative law judges. He wants to give anyone accused of violating the law the right to a jury trial. He says he opposes the bill as it is now worded.
Judicial appointments: Thurmond said he would like to see a woman Supreme Court justice and he would support the nomination of qualified blacks to federal courts. "I wouldn't necessarily say that if you've got a black, Thurmond said, "but I wouldn't hesitate to confirm a well-qualified black."
Blacks: "I think I'm one of the best friends they could have because I believe in fair, just and equal privilege, for all, equality for all," Thurmond said. "I have never said anything against black people. I ran for president once [in 1948, as a Dixiecrat] and I think some people got the idea I was running on the racial issue. Far as I was concerned, it was the question of federal power versus state power -- it was to uphold the Constitution, to uphold the Bill of Rights."
Busing: He opposes it as a means of achieving racial balance. "My thinking is, you haul children to the nearest school, whatever it is, all-black, all-white or mixed. If you bus children 20 or 30 miles a day just to keep a racial balance, I think it's impractical and unwise."
Prayer in public schools: "I favor voluntary prayer in the schools. I don't want to force any particular kind of religion on people, but if the children want to participate in voluntary prayers, I think they ought to be allowed to do that," he said.
Thurmond said his first priority when he succeeds Kennedy as Judiciary chairman at the opening of the 97th Congress will be to trim the committee's 158-member staff, which he described as the largest in the Senate.
"I think we ought to get by with as few people as we can," he said. "I think it would signify to the country that Congress is willing to reduce its own bureaucracy, which could well be emulated by the different [federal] agencies."
Thurmond said another priority is introduction of legislation to reduce the size and scope of federal regulation, at least where his committee has jurisdiction.
"If there's any one complaint that I hear back home and all over the country, it's that we have too many regulations," he said. "It will be by purpose to eliminate every possible regulation we can."
Thurmond, asked why he thought the Republicans had won control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years, replied: "In my opinion, there was a genuine inner dissatisfaction [with] what was going on in Washington and I think people wanted a change. And to get that change, they not only thought they'd have to get a new president, but they'd have to have a new Congress."