ACLU Says Habeas Legislation is Unconstitutional, Should be Rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee

July 28, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee today has begun to consider legislation that would strip federal courts of their jurisdiction and take away defendant’s safeguards against being wrongfully convicted and even executed. The committee will continue to consider this legislation after the August recess. The American Civil Liberties Union opposes this bill, saying it unconstitutionally violates the doctrine of Separation of Powers and threatens the independence of the federal judiciary.

Senate bill 1088, the Streamlined Procedures Act of 2005, eliminates state prisoners’ ability to access federal courts in order to have their criminal cases reviewed. If passed, it would prevent the federal courts from reviewing many types of legal errors in criminal cases.

“This bill virtually eliminates a state prisoner’s ability to call for a federal court to review their case, if for example, their lawyer fell asleep during trial.” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Inexperienced lawyers, and prosecutorial misconduct, among other things are some of the reasons why convictions are overturned as a result of habeas proceedings. This bill would eliminate state prisoners’ ability to access federal court as a court of last resort.”

Since 1976, when capital punishment was resumed in some states, federal habeas corpus has been the principle means by which the federal courts have forced the states to adhere to constitutional standards for the imposition of the death penalty. Those standards are essential if capital punishment is to be administered in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner. Yet death penalty statutes are complex and state courts often fail to interpret them correctly. Thus, in many cases federal habeas proceedings become the court of last resort for state prisoners with claims of innocence. If S.1088 is enacted many wrongfully convicted people will never have the opportunity to establish their innocence in a federal court.

Currently, courts determine whether states have established competent legal counsel for people sentenced to death. Under S.1088, the U.S. Attorney General, the chief prosecuting officer, would have the authority to decide whether states’ indigent defense systems are providing adequate representation. It is inappropriate for the Attorney General, an unobjective observer, to make this type of decision and this demonstrates that supporters of this legislation are not sincerely interested in providing competent legal representation .

“The bottom line is that this bill strips the federal judiciary of their power by taking away the ability for state prisoners to gain access to the federal courts,” said McCurdy. “This bill should be called ‘the Steam Roller Procedures Act of 2005’ because nothing will be left of habeas corpus in this country if this legislation is passed.”

For more on the ACLU’s concerns with Habeas Corpus and Court Stripping, go to:

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