No equal access in this court


THE SUPREME Court, the one in Washington with "Equal Justice Under Law" carved in marble at its entrance, is finding new ways to slam its doors on poor people. It declared the other day that henceforth petitioners who submit "frivolous or malicious" petitions would be denied the privilege of filing them free even if they were too poor to pay court costs. The announced purpose is to relieve the court of burdens caused by "those who would abuse the integrity of our process."

It's a silly, mean gesture, unworthy of a court whose justices are sworn to "do equal right to the poor and to the rich."

All the justices recognize that their courthouse, like courthouses everywhere, is the target of frequent filers -- mostly writ-writing prisoners lodging inarticulate, repetitious claims. Some of those pauper petitions, however, hold a germ of legal substance and often present important legal issues that should interest the court.

Three years ago Congress gave the Supreme Court nearly total discretion to deny petitions for review without explanation, freeing the court to focus on selecting the most significant cases and deciding them with care. Under Chief Justice William Rehnquist the court continues to squander its allowance, picking cases with flawed records only to dismiss them, and bearing down on perceived abusers.

The court's current majority, though preoccupied with abuse, persists in charging abuse where none exists. Last month it ruled that a death row inmate had "abused the writ" of habeas corpus by charging that Georgia officials hid the truth about jailhouse informant techniques, a charge that the prisoner proved. Perhaps Congress needs to look again at the high court's authority in pauper cases, or at least take a look at how the justices have been using their extra time.

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