Thousands of prisoners in institutions across the country, file petitions in federal court each year claiming that they have been incarcerated in violation of their constitutional rights. Most of these petitions seeking a writ of habeas corpus are filed after the prisoner has been convicted in state court and has exhausted all his appeals through the state system. In many states, hard-working and honest judges resent having federal courts second-guessing their cases and occasionally deciding that a federal statute or constitutional guarantee has been incorrectly applied. Some federal judges are also unhappy about the increased workload these petitions create. And some prisoners abuse the process by filing multiple and continuous petitions (a few have filed hundreds during their years in prison), many of which are frivolous.
The administration has been trying for five years to limit the rights of state prisoners to seek these writs. In the last Congress, a bill was passed by the Senate, but not the House. Last year the bill was reintroduced, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has held hearings and markup sessions. However, opposition to the proposal has grown, and Sen. Strom Thurmond, the bill's sponsor, has managed by a parliamentary maneuver to circumvent the committee and bring the bill to the floor, where it could come up at any time.
It's a bad bill.
Yes, these petitions may bother some state judges, but occasionally a state court, even one that has fully and fairly considered a case, makes a mistake about a federal statute or a constitutional right. Review by federal courts should not be taken as a personal insult by any state judge. Yes, petitions do cause some extra work in the federal system and are occasionally abused by petitioners.
But while the numbers of petitions filed has increased steadily in the past two decades, so have the number of other cases. Habeas corpus petitions as a percentage of all civil cases filed in federal courts remain at about 3.5 percent. Almost all are dismissed without further action after the papers are reviewed. Of 8,335 petitions filed in the year ending June 1984, for example, only 139 proceeded to trial. And while it may be a burden to wade through these often handwritten and wandering petitions, most judges and their law clerks take their responsibilities seriously, because a prisoner's liberty, and sometimes his life, is at stake. In these circumstances, it cannot be said that correcting even a single injustice -- let alone dozens every year -- is not worth the paper work.