THE SENATE Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the Streamlined Procedures Act of 2005 this week. This legislation, ostensibly designed to make the justice system more efficient, is a Trojan horse whose transparent purpose is to strip the federal courts of virtually all of their jurisdiction to review state criminal court proceedings.
Essentially, the legislation would eviscerate the role of the federal courts in ensuring that innocent people are not mistakenly convicted of crimes and that state courts do not send people to prison in violation of their constitutional rights. It would restrict habeas corpus rights, which are enshrined in the Constitution, date back to the Magna Carta and guarantee that you can go to a court and tell a judge that you are being held illegally.
Why is this the role of the federal courts? Although most state courts and prosecutors are committed to the highest expression of justice, it is unfortunately true that sometimes that ideal is honored more in the breach than in observance. Historically, it is the federal courts that have provided the necessary corrective action when state courts fail.
The Streamline Procedures Act only allows for federal review of convictions based on new proof of what the bill calls “actual innocence.” It would not, for example, allow for review where a defendant was convicted on the basis of perjured testimony or other fabricated evidence, or when a conviction was tainted by racial bias in jury selection.
And even when there is new evidence of innocence, under this proposed law a person could still be denied a hearing if he or she could not sufficiently explain why the evidence was not discovered earlier. In other words, no matter how compelling the evidence of innocence might be, the courthouse doors would be closed because the proof came too late.
I am one of more than 50 former prosecutors who have written to the Senate Judiciary Committee to express concern about the legislation.
Why do so many of us care so much about the provisions of this bill? Because, as prosecutors, we had a moral and professional obligation to see that every person convicted of a crime was afforded a fair trial. A conviction by any means is not justice.
At the very heart of the American criminal justice system is the bedrock principle that every person charged with a crime should receive a fair trial. All else is simply procedure. A fair trial means an honest trial, properly conducted with honest evidence. Anything less is neither justice nor American. Ensuring the right to a fair trial is what gives prosecutors the moral authority to do their jobs, to strike strong blows but fair ones. We cannot allow “due process of law” to be reduced to a mere platitude.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the blindfolded statue of Lady Justice is not meant to symbolize turning a blind eye to those who have been denied a fair trial.
The Senate Judiciary Committee must stop this bill and start a true conversation about what reforms are needed so that our criminal justice system continues to deliver justice and not simply results at any cost.