Monday, May 16, 2011

Castille reignites dispute over Pennsylvania death-penalty appeals | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/16/2011

Castille reignites dispute over Pennsylvania death-penalty appeals | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/16/2011

Federal habeas petitions have been receiving some national press lately. The New York Times ran an op-ed about federal habeas reform a few weeks back. And now the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue at the state level in a very big way, even going so far as to accuse the federal habeas unit in Pennsylvania of malfeasance.

It's important to note first of all that the Hoffman editorial from the Times and Chief Judge Castille raise very different issues. And Hoffman's criticisms, while severely misguided, are on a much different level than Castille's outright hostility toward the federal defenders.

But both Hoffman and Castille argue essentially that the capital habeas process is an expensive waste of taxpayer resources. In the case of Castille, this criticism is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it is extremely unethical and unbecoming of a judge to level this sort of broadside against the indigent defense community. Castille is also using his office to lend an aura of judicial authority to what is explicitly a political, partisan argument. (It should be noted that Pennsylvania supreme court judges are elected positions, and that Castille, a Republican, ran in 1994 on a "tough-on-crime" platform that touted the 45 death penalty verdicts he obtained as a prosecutor.)

Finally, and most significantly, Castille's argument completely misrepresents the motivation behind the federal defenders' efforts in state court. The defender's exhaustive practices in state court are motivated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") passed by Congress in 1996. The AEDPA imposed a host of stringent jurisdictional limitations on federal habeas corpus petitions, one of which is "exhaustion": any claims raised in a federal habeas petition must be raised first in a state proceeding, either on direct appeal or in a post-conviction relief petition, or they are barred. So by necessity, federal defenders are forced to raise every colorable legal argument at the state level by whatever means available (usually by post-conviction relief petition) before they may be heard in federal court.

So the blame for all this costly death penalty litigation lies ultimately with Congress, not the federal defenders who must comply with its dictates. If state courts feel themselves burdened by the responsibilities placed upon them, perhaps they should take up the issue with Congress itself. Or perhaps they might simply outlaw the death penalty itself.