Magazine article Insight on the News

Are Justices Too Swift?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Are Justices Too Swift?

Article excerpt

Legal scholar are decrying the Supreme Court decision to speed up a hearing on the antiterrorism law concerning habeus corpus.

Using a procedure reserved for the most important constitutional matters, the Supreme Court has ordered an expedited hearing on a new antiterrorism law curbing the court's authority and restricting repeated habeas-corpus appeals. The justices gave each side in a case involving a death-row appeal until June 3 to put their positions in writing. A decision is expected before the court adjourns at the end of the month.

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 came under attack in federal courts from coast to coast immediately after President Clinton signed it into law April 24. But dissenting justices and legal scholars charge that the expedited hearing is too swift to settle a 130-year controversy. Usual practice allows at least four months between accepting a case and hearing arguments.

The justices ordered the case argued on three legal questions far more specific than issues raised in the Georgia inmate's appeal:

* Does Congress unconstitutionally restrict Supreme Court jurisdiction in the new terrorism law?

* When does the law apply to habeas-corpus petitions filed directly with the high court?

* Does applying the act to allow the execution of Ellis Wayne Felker in Georgia for a 1981 rape and murder amount to suspending habeas corpus?

Felker challenged the portion of the law that bars the Supreme Court from reviewing the action of three-judge appeals-court panels. The panels can grant state inmates permission to file a second federal appeal challenging the constitutionality of their convictions. (The high court had denied Felker's appeal in February.)

The court did not indicate the fate of other condemned prisoners scheduled for execution in coming months. Five of eight prisoners scheduled for execution have had earlier appeals denied by the Supreme Court. Their attorneys are expected to challenge anew the section of the terrorism law restrict" repeat use of the habeas corpus procedure to delay execution.

Habeas corpus - a citizen's right to obtain a writ against illegal imprisonment - also is used in cases in which the stakes are lower. There are 9,000 to 10,000 such cases in the federal courts at any one time, according to Columbia University law professor James S. Liebman. "They've given the parties two weeks and themselves a month to consider this very difficult question that has plagued constitutional scholars for decades and decades," says Liebman, who literally wrote the book on the topic, Federal Habeas Corpus and Procedure, with Randy Hertz. …

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