Saturday, July 16, 2005

You have been warned. Now, what are you gonna do about it?

Court Gutting in Congress
Congress is quietly considering whether to destroy one of the pillars of constitutional law: the habeas corpus power of the federal courts to determine whether an indigent defendant has been unjustly sentenced to death in state courts.

A bill making alarming progress in committee would effectively strip federal courts of most review power and shift it to the attorney general. That's right: the chief prosecutor of the United States would become the judge of whether state courts behave fairly enough toward defendants appealing capital convictions. If a state system was certified as up to snuff, then the federal courts would lose their jurisdiction and condemned defendants their last hope.

It is appalling that lawmakers would visit such destruction on a basic human right that's been painfully secured across three centuries of jurisprudence. Repeatedly, federal court scrutiny has laid bare the shoddy state of capital justice in the states. DNA science has drawn attention to the frequency of false convictions.

The injustices of the criminal court process flow considerably from the widespread lack of competent defense counsel in the first place. Yet the proposal would allow state courts greater cover in pronouncing their own flawed convictions as too "harmless and nonprejudicial" to merit further review.

Proponents insist that truly meritorious complaints would somehow survive under this oppressive bill. In fact, it would make the execution of the innocent even more likely than it already is.

JUDGE RON CHAPMAN, Retired Justice, 5th District Court of Appeals

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