A proposal by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to speed up resolution of appeals by death row inmates avoids the true issue, says one legal authority, while the head of America's lawyers urges caution with any such reform.
"The lack of legal resources is the real problem," said Tanya Coke of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, after Rehnquist unveiled the proposal on Monday.American Bar Association President Robert Raven said "proposals for reform, even modest ones, must be carefully thought through so the integrity of the system and the rights of defendants are protected."
Rehnquist told the ABA that reforms are needed to reduce delays in resolving death penalty appeals that often mean postponing executions for years.
The ABA's House of Delegates, the policy-making body for the nation's largest lawyers' organization, had a busy day in which it adopted a resolution endorsing legislation to ban discrimination against homosexuals.
Twice before, the group rejected similar proposals by narrow margins.
The delegates also approved a resolution urging Congress to repeal the antitrust exemption granted the insurance industry 44 years ago.
The repeal, if adopted by Congress, would mean increased federal regulation of an industry lawyers blame for skyrocketing insurance premiums. Insurance industry officials have charged the lawyers with responsibility for the so-called liability insurance crisis.
The ABA also unanimously called on Congress to approve a 51 percent pay-raise package that would mean higher pay for federal judges. The U.S. House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on the measure Tuesday.
In his speech on the death penalty and other matters, Rehnquist acknowledged that many death penalty sentences and convictions are overturned by federal courts.
"But to my mind, the flaw in the present system is not that capital sentences are set aside by federal courts, but that litigation ultimately resolved in favor of the states takes literally years and years and years," Rehnquist said.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund says about 40 percent of state death penalty convictions and sentences are overturned by federal courts.
The chief justice cited the most recent execution in the country, that of serial killer Ted Bundy in Florida on Jan. 24, as an example of a system of death penalty appeals that is often "chaotic and drawn out."
Rehnquist noted that the Supreme Court turned down three separate emergency pleas in Bundy's behalf hours before he was put to death.
"All three of these actions were being prosecuted simultaneously on the day before the execution of a prisoner who had been on death row for nine years," he said. "Surely it would be a bold person to say that this system could not be improved."
Rehnquist said he is not calling for a drastic curtailing of the right of convicted killers to appeal to the federal courts for help.
Instead he said he wants "modest changes" aimed at consolidating appeals, imposing deadlines for when they can be filed and assuring death row inmates they will have legal representation for federal court appeals.
In some states the average time elapsed between the commission of a crime and execution is more than 13 years, Rehnquist said. There are more than 2,000 prisoners on death row nationwide.