Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), in a move that has drawn fire from Democrats, abruptly pulled two of the Reagan administration's most controversial crime bills out of the committee this week and moved them to the Senate floor.
One bill would sharply limit the right of state prisoners to appeal convictions to the federal courts through habeas corpus petitions. The other would modify the "exclusionary rule" by widening the circumstances in which evidence illegally obtained by police could be used in trials.
"I totally disagree with this effort to circumvent the committee process," said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), one of several Democrats on the panel who was offering amendments to the bills before Thurmond, the chief sponsor, withdrew them without a vote. Metzenbaum said the measures "would totally destroy constitutional rights the courts have recognized time and again."
Thurmond spokesman Mark Goodin said the senator introduced the bills 15 months ago and has been "infinitely patient" about Democratic delays. "Some of the Democrats have attempted to block them, to stop them, to keep them from being dealt with by the Senate, under the rubric of extended debate," Goodin said. "His Thurmond's patience was at an end with these tactics."
Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten agreed that "a couple of senators have done their best to sandbag" the bills by offering "idiotic amendments."
But Leslie Harris of the American Civil Liberties Union said the committee only recently began serious work on the bills. "Thurmond equates dilatory tactics with substantive debate," she said. "There has been no substantive debate on this until now."
The Senate passed similar bills in 1983, but they have never cleared the House Judiciary Committee. Thurmond had the bills placed on the Senate calendar Monday night by reintroducing them through a relatively rare parliamentary maneuver, which some senators have used when it seemed that their bills would be bottled up in committee.
For more than a century, habeas corpus -- the right to seek judicial review of one's imprisonment -- has been the chief vehicle by which the federal courts have reviewed state criminal convictions for constitutional flaws. Although the courts grant few such petitions by prisoners, they sometimes result in important rulings on constitutional issues, such as underrepresentation of blacks and women in jury pools.
The Thurmond bill would set a one-year deadline on most habeas corpus claims and bar prisoners from seeking federal review if their claims were "fully and fairly adjudicated" in state court.
Harris said the bill is an example of Attorney General Edwin Meese III's "trying to limit the effect of the Bill of Rights on the states. This is an ideological bill; it's pure Meese. Its effect is to rescind the right of habeas corpus for all state prisoners."
But Goodin said the courts have been flooded with frivolous claims and that "habeas corpus has turned into an excuse for prisoners to dodge the law." Assistant Attorney General Stephen S. Trott told the panel last year that habeas corpus petitions are "an important weapon in the defense attorney's arsenal of delaying tactics."
The second Thurmond measure would allow the courts to consider evidence obtained with illegal search warrants, as long as the police officer had a "good faith" belief that he was acting legally. This would significantly expand exceptions for illegally obtained evidence.
Korten said that "one of Ed Meese's most important objectives" is "to make sure we convict more criminals, that fewer of them go free on a technicality."
But ACLU officials said the Justice Department has asked Thurmond to modify the bill to conform to recent Supreme Court rulings. They said the bill sets no objective standard for reasonable conduct by police and would condone questionable searches by officers who say they were unaware of the law.
Goodin dismissed suggestions that Thurmond moved the bills to clear the panel's calendar for a measure to limit liability for violating antitrust and price-fixing laws.