Rehnquist’s Stern Legacy On Death-Row Appeals

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Whether or not U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist retires soon, his legacy in criminal law and many other important areas of jurisprudence is clear, Time magazine says.

Capital punishment is the example chosen by Time to illustrate Rehnquist’s influence in the criminal area. Death-row inmates file appeal after appeal, allowing them to postpone execution again and again. Rehnquist was one of four dissenters in the 1972 decision striking down state capital-punishment laws because they were administered arbitrarily. When the court again permitted executions, Rehnquist became frustrated because so many defendants delayed their sentences using federal appeals. With a 1989 decision, Teague v. Lane, as well as others, his court eroded the ability of convicts to file appeals. In 1996, Congress followed his lead, rewriting the law to incorporate Rehnquist’s thinking on the appeals question. “The new standard makes it almost impossible for someone who has been convicted in state court to get to a federal court,” says Harvard Law prof. Richard Fallon. Rehnquist was unable to get everything he wanted. Last year, for instance, the court ruled that states could not execute the mentally retarded. Rehnquist was the sole dissenter.


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