High Court Debates Limiting Death-Row Appeals: Queries Appellate Jurisdiction in Bill

By Murray, Frank J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

High Court Debates Limiting Death-Row Appeals: Queries Appellate Jurisdiction in Bill


Murray, Frank J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Supreme Court yesterday heard one of the most important challenges to its authority in two centuries but seemed torn between calls to speed executions and put new limits on its authority to hear death-row appeals.

The case centers on a new law that says a prisoner refused permission by a three-judge federal appeals panel to file a second or successive appeal - called petitions for writs of habeas corpus - may not appeal that decision.

When the argument ended, an outraged Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticized the Clinton administration's defense of a law he expected to stop decades of frivolous appeals.

"We have a president who claims he's tough on the death penalty, he's going to be tough on crime, and he sends the solicitor general up here who mealy-mouths the issue and tries to undermine the case," Mr. Hatch said on the Supreme Court steps.

The oral argument began moments after the high court unanimously decided another constitutional separation-of-powers case by ruling the president and commander in chief may define court-martial terms for condemning military murderers to death.

That decision removed a major roadblock to executing double-murderer Dwight J. Loving and seven other men on military death row at Fort Leavenworth by unanimously upholding sentencing procedures set out in 1984 by President Reagan.

The justices then turned to Congress' attempt, under the anti-terrorism bill that became law April 24, to restrict appeals rights that state prisoners were given in 1867.

Although they used Ellis Wayne Felker's appeal of his death sentence in Georgia for killing college student Joy Ludlum in 1981, the justices might have been appealing for themselves.

They devoted yesterday's argument solely to the one curbing court authority largely spelled out in the 1803 Marbury vs. …

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