Attorney General William French Smith, pressing the Reagan administration's attack on "judicial activism," yesterday proposed legislation that would significantly curtail the rights of state prisoners to challenge their convictions in the federal courts.
Smith, in a speech prepared for delivery to a conference of state chief justices, said he would submit legislation this week to "correct abuses" of the federal habeas corpus laws, which allow state prisoners to continuously seek reversals of their convictions even after their direct appeals have been turned down.
The most sweeping of Smith's proposals would clamp a time limit on these challenges. Under the bill, Smith said, the federal courts would not even consider a prisoner's habeas corpus petition a certain number of years after appeals had concluded.
Smith did not specify how many years would have to pass, but his Task Force on Violent Crime had recommended a three-year limit.
Smith also proposed new restrictions on the way federal judges review these petitions, barring them from inquiring into legal issues already conducted in the state courts and, except when major constitutional violations are involved, prohibiting them from considering new claims that the prisoner failed to make in the state courts.
The proposals immediately were attacked by civil liberties lawyers. David Landau, a Washington lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, called them "another in a series of ineffective proposals" that curtail individual rights while failing to address the problem of crime.
Some 7,000 habeas corpus petitions are filed each year in the federal courts on behalf of state prisoners, many of them from so-called "jailhouse lawyers," prisoners who write and file the petitions for themselves and fellow inmates.
These challenges, which critics say clog the federal courts, remove "finality" from the criminal justice system and allow U.S. judges to interfere with state legal judgments, arise when a prisoner thinks he has found some defect in his trial that has gone unredressed in the courts during the appellate process.
If a judge agrees that there is a serious defect, the prisoner is freed from prison and often given a new trial.
"The continual availability of the possibility of relief has turned many prisoners into writ-writers who never confront the fact of their guilt and get on with the process of rehabilitation but view the criminal process as an ongoing game in which they are still active contestants," Smith said.
These are "cases which have already been through the state court system," he said. "The question perhaps should not be how many such filings there are but why there should be any at all."
Repeating themes from Chief Justice Warren E. Burger's controversial law-and-order speech last winter, Smith said these "abuses" undermine public "respect" for the criminal process and tilt the balance of judicial power too heavily toward the federal courts.
Smith's complaints and his proposals are long-standing items on the conservative law-and-order agenda and were originally suggested to him by the task force, which issued its report last August.
Congress is already considering bills to do what Smith recommended yesterday in his speech in Williamsburg, Va.
Rick Wilson, of the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, said it was a "myth" that these petitions are causing problems in the court. He said the numbers of habeas corpus petitions have not increased over the past decade and that they are used only in a "tiny fraction" of cases.
At the same time, he said Smith's legislation could cause "potentially severe damage" to some prisoners, particularly those on death row who want to challenge their convictions and sentences.