The Senate Judiciary Committee today takes up legislation meant to streamline the death penalty appeals process. Opposition is mounting to the bill, not only from death penalty opponents but from individuals and groups not often thought of as vocal supporters of the rights of criminal defendants, reports the Los Angeles Times. Critics include the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group that specializes in religious freedom and antiabortion issues; Bob Barr, the conservative Republican former congressman from Georgia; more than 50 former prosecutors; and more than a dozen former federal judges. Opponents say the legislation would dramatically restrict federal courts’ ability to consider habeas corpus petitions from state prisoners who claim that their constitutional rights have been violated or that they have evidence they are innocent.
The number of habeas corpus petitions pending in federal district courts increased to 23,218 in fiscal year 2003, from 13,359 in fiscal year 1994. The bill would impose restrictions on an inmate’s ability to get a federal court to hear a habeas corpus petition. Seth Waxman, U.S. solicitor general in the Clinton administration, told the committee described four death penalty cases in the last four years in which the Supreme Court found major constitutional violations overlooked by state courts.