SAN DIEGO — U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, speaking to the California Judges Assn. convention here, criticized the growing intervention of federal courts in state court proceedings, especially those involving criminal offenses.
In particular, Meese said, the time has come to limit the right of criminal defendants in state courts to seek federal review of their cases through petitions for writs of habeas corpus.
By filing such petitions, defendants in effect ask federal courts to review the circumstances under which they were imprisoned to ensure that none of their constitutional rights were violated.
The right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus, except in times of rebellion, is protected by the U.S. Constitution. In the 19th Century, Congress expanded that right to allow federal courts to hear petitions from state prisoners.
"Although obviously the Great Writ, as it's known, exists as a historic and very important protection against the violation of the rights of individuals who have been wrongfully imprisoned," Meese told the judges, "the truth is this right is frequently abused."
A 1984 federal study determined that fewer than 2% of the 7,500 such petitions currently pending ultimately will result in the release of a prisoner, Meese said.
"It's gotten to be quite a game," he added.
The attorney general did not offer specific proposals for limiting federal habeas corpus review, but he applauded two recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that have had that effect.
In one 1982 case, the high court ruled that federal courts cannot consider habeas corpus petitions from state prisoners until all possible appeals in the state court system have been exhausted.
In the second case, the Supreme Court said a state prisoner cannot raise constitutional issues in federal court that he has not first raised in state courts.
"These decisions reflect the fact that federal courts have no inherent superiority in their ability to do justice in these cases that raise constitutional questions," Meese said, "and we should be unafraid to repose the resolution of these cases in state courts."