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U.S. Judges, ABA Assail Death Row Appeals Bill

September 28, 2005|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

The policymaking body for the nation's federal judges and the American Bar Assn. have announced their opposition to proposed legislation that would limit appeals in death penalty cases.

The authors of the proposed Streamlined Procedures Act, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River), say the bill would stop what they called "endless delays" between convictions in capital cases and executions. Kyl and Lungren said when they introduced the proposal earlier this year that restrictions on appeals passed by Congress in 1996 were inadequate.

But in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the Judicial Conference of the United States called the proposal unwarranted and said it could "create unreasonable obstacles to resolution" of death penalty cases.

The judges who make up the conference said in the letter that the data they had reviewed did not support "the need for a comprehensive overhaul" of existing federal appeals procedures.

The proposal, scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the committee, could "undermine the traditional role of the federal courts to hear and decide the merits of claims arising under the Constitution," they wrote. The letter was sent to Specter on Monday.

The bar association made similar arguments in a letter sent Tuesday to Specter and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

"Contrary to the claimed goals" of the legislation, "this measure would create a host of new problems," the lawyers group said, noting that it would overturn several Supreme Court decisions that had interpreted Congress' last effort to streamline appeals in death penalty cases.

Moreover, bar association members wrote, "the bill inadequately protects the innocent by proposing virtually unattainable procedural and other requirements to establish innocence. These requirements will prevent many innocent prisoners from reaching federal court."

In recent years, federal courts have often overturned death sentences, including some cases where DNA evidence had shown that prisoners were wrongly convicted and sentenced to die.

Both the Judicial Conference and the ABA urged Congress to study whether there was any unwarranted delay in federal appeals of death penalty cases before moving ahead with new legislation.

In voicing their opposition to the bill, the Judicial Conference and the bar association joined state chief justices from throughout the country who passed a resolution of opposition in August.

In July, more than 50 former prosecutors and more than a dozen former federal judges also said Congress should reject the bill, suggesting that passing it could lead to the execution of wrongly convicted people.

The bill stalled in the Judiciary Committee over the summer and has since been amended.

But the Judicial Conference resolution and the ABA letter say the legislation still has many problems.

Seth P. Waxman, the U.S. Solicitor General in the Clinton administration, who testified against the bill at a hearing this year, described the Judicial Conference letter as potent.

"I would think that when both the state chief justices and the Judicial Conference have taken an unequivocal position in opposition to legislation," members of Congress should hesitate to vote for it, Waxman said.

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