Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Destruction of Defendants’ Rights

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (A.E.D.P.A.) is surely one of the worst statutes ever passed by Congress and signed into law by a President. The heart of the law is a provision saying that, even when a state court misapplies the Constitution, a defendant cannot necessarily have his day in federal court. Instead, he must prove that the state court’s decision was “contrary to” what the Supreme Court has determined is “clearly established federal law,” or that the decision was “an unreasonable application of” it.

This law gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, which a federal court can use to order the release of someone wrongly imprisoned. It is often called the Great Writ because of its extraordinary power to protect the liberty of individuals. In the nineteen-sixties, the Supreme Court expanded the law of habeas corpus as a protection against the unfair treatment of defendants at every stage of the criminal process, from arrest and interrogation through trial and sentencing, especially in cases leading to death sentences. This expansion was controversial and, under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the Court later restricted the availability of the writ. But the protection that the writ gave, even when it was limited, was indispensable. A dramatically high percentage of individuals sentenced to death had their sentences reversed owing to errors by trial courts.

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