Top Jurists Pan Faster Death Penalty Appeals

Times Staff Writer

Chief justices of state courts from around the country have urged the U.S. Senate not to pass a bill aimed at speeding death penalty appeals.

The resolution passed overwhelmingly by the Conference of Chief Justices this week was the latest opposition to the Streamlined Procedures Act, introduced in the Senate by Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and in the House by Dan Lungren (R-Gold River). Only the chief justice of Texas’ Supreme Court voted against the resolution, according to several justices who were present.

This year, Kyl and Lungren introduced virtually identical bills in the Senate and House to remedy what they called “endless delays” between convictions in capital cases and executions.

Kyl and Lungren said restrictions that Congress passed in 1996 had not been sufficient.


Critics said the legislation would sharply restrict federal courts’ ability to consider petitions from state prisoners who claimed that their constitutional rights had been violated or that they had evidence that they were innocent.

In addition to the chief justices, the measure has drawn criticism from some conservative legal organizations, including the Rutherford Institute, whose president said the measure could lead to the execution of innocent people. About 50 former prosecutors and a dozen former federal judges have also weighed in against the bill.

“I am very much in favor of trying to speed up the criminal justice process, including capital cases,” said Ronald M. George, California’s chief justice, who supports the death penalty and twice argued death penalty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court when he worked for the California attorney general’s office.

“But there is an overriding concern I, and my fellow justices, have with fairness,” said George, whose state has 630 people on death row -- the most in the nation.


George said his review of the legislation indicated that it would overturn some recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that had given new hearings to people on death row. “Those Rehnquist court decisions would not have been possible if this legislation had been in effect,” George said. “That is troubling to me; it was troubling to my colleagues.”

Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer expressed similar views. “What we are saying to the [Senate Judiciary] Committee members is: ‘Don’t rush this through,’ ” said Moyer, a Republican, the longest-serving chief justice in the nation.

The proposed restrictions could significantly reduce the legal rights of death-row inmates, said Ralph Cappy, Pennsylvania’s chief justice and a Democrat. “In a very delicate area where you are concerned with possible actual innocence in post-conviction hearings that gives us great pause,” said Cappy, whose state has the nation’s fourth-largest death row.

Prisoners on death row generally reach federal courts using a legal petition known as habeas corpus -- a centuries-old method of challenging allegedly illegal imprisonment. The petition gives an inmate a day in court to assert that his constitutional rights were violated at trial, leading to a serious error in the case.

The pending measures “may preclude state defendants in both capital and noncapital” cases from seeking relief in the federal courts “and may deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction in the vast majority of these matters, all with unknown consequences for the state courts and the administration of justice,” the chief justices said in their resolution, passed at the group’s annual meeting, in Charleston, S.C.

The justices urged additional study and analysis of the 1996 law “and the causes of unwarranted delay, if any” before Congress passed any new legislation on the subject.

The “interpretation and effect” of the 1996 law has “only recently begun to be settled,” the resolution noted. Making new and far-reaching changes in the law could spawn years of further litigation, the state judges noted.

“The ostensible purpose [of these bills] is to expedite matters,” but that could “easily be subverted ... by another decade of litigation,” Cappy said.


Wallace B. Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, said he voted no on the resolution because he had not had sufficient time to review the measure.

Texas is one of two states that has, in effect, two supreme courts: the one Jefferson heads, which reviews civil cases, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

“My point was that the whole complex area of habeas corpus is somewhat foreign to a court with only civil jurisdiction,” Jefferson said. He said he had started to review the bill, but added that he had “not made any final decision.”

Shortly before Congress adjourned for the summer, Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill that would substantially amend the Kyl measure. The committee is supposed to take up the bill this fall.