Los Angeles Times
  Saturday, August 6, 2005

  Top Jurists Pan Faster Death Penalty Appeals
  By Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

  Chief justices from all over the U.S., with the exception 
  of Texas, call for the Senate not to pass a bill that would 
  streamline the process.

  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 

  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.