The chief justices of the state supreme courts, in an unusually strong and unanimous resolution, have condemned the many bills before Congress which would strip the federal courts of power to rule on controversial social issues such as abortion, busing and school prayer.
They also served notice on conservatives that turning these issues over to the state courts, as these bills would do, will not produce the intended result of overturning Supreme Court rulings on busing, legalizing abortion or banning prayer in public schools but will, instead, probably cast them in concrete.
The bills "give the appearance of proceeding from the premise that state court judges will not honor their oaths to obey the U.S. Constitution," the Conference of Chief Justices said, "nor their obligations to give full force to controlling Supreme Court precedents.
"If the proposed statutes are enacted," the resolution said, those rulings "will remain the unchangeable law of the land . . . beyond the reach of the U.S. Supreme Court or state supreme courts to alter or overrule."
The resolution is expected to carry significant weight because under the bills, the state courts headed by these judges would have sole authority to rule on busing, abortion and other volatile subjects. The judges' resolution said they do not want that authority and regard the legislation as "a hazardous experiment with the vulnerable fabric" of the nation's judicial system.
The Conference of Chief Justices passed the resolution at a meeting at the National Center of State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., last weekend.
Lawrence H. Cooke, chief judge of New York State and chairman-elect of the conference, said every state was represented and there was no dissent when the vote was taken Saturday.
There are at least 30 court-stripping bills before Congress, some due for floor debate within the next few weeks. Congressional conservatives, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), are pressing the bills as alternatives to the more difficult process of overruling Supreme Court decisions by amending the U.S. Constitution. Most scholars say the effect would be to throw all the issues into the state courts for resolution where conservatives hope they will have better luck.
The resolution said such a situation, besides clogging the state courts with new cases, would make the Constitution "mean something different in each of the 50 states" and cause "confusion" throughout the judicial system about the balance of state-federal judicial power.