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Chief justice identifies Congress as source of overworked judiciary


WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in his year-end report on the judiciary, faulted Congress yesterday for turning local offenses into federal crimes, a trend that he said has overburdened the U.S. courts.

Last year, the number of new crime cases in the federal judiciary rose by 15 percent, he said, the largest increase in nearly three decades. The rise was propelled mostly by drug and immigration cases, he added.

Whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, Congress has regularly created new federal crimes over the past two decades.

Amid the "war on drugs" of the 1980s, Congress authorized federal prosecutors to go after drug dealers and "drug kingpins." Next came carjackers, arsonists and those who flee their duty to pay child support. Recently, House Republicans have been pushing to make various juvenile offenses into federal crimes.

The chief justice, adhering to the old-fashioned view, says the federal courts should be reserved for truly national matters.

"The trend to federalize crimes threatens to change entirely the nature of our federal system," Rehnquist said. "Federal courts were not created to adjudicate local crimes, no matter how sensational or heinous the crimes may be. State courts do, can and should handle such problems."

At the Supreme Court, Rehnquist has pressed the same theme during his 26-year career.

In death penalty cases, he has repeatedly called for a more hands-off approach by federal judges. When U.S. judges in California act to block the state from imposing a death sentence, Rehnquist can be counted upon to vote in favor of returning the matter to state officials.

He also successfully persuaded Congress in 1996 to change federal law to make it harder for state death row inmates to have their cases reviewed by federal judges.

His interventions have not been limited to capital punishment, however. In 1995, the chief justice, speaking for a 5-4 majority, struck down as unconstitutional the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, which made it a federal crime to possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school. The state of Texas already had such laws and other states could pass them, Rehnquist said in his opinion, and Congress had no authority to make such offenses a federal crime.

In his year-end report, he urged the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings to set general standards for when crimes should be federalized.

Rehnquist suggested that federal jurisdiction be limited to crimes that cross state lines or those involving "high-level state or local government corruption," which cannot be entrusted to state courts. A threshold consideration for creating a new federal crime is a "demonstrated state failure" to handle the matter, he said.

Last year the conservative chief justice used his year-end report to scold Senate Republicans for stalling on voting on President Clinton's nominees to the federal bench. His rebuke appeared to bring results.

In 1998, 65 judges were confirmed by the Senate, a marked improvement from the 36 approvals in 1997 and 16 in 1996.

In his new report, Rehnquist also faulted the White House and Congress for failing to appoint new members to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and for allowing judicial salaries to stagnate. For the fifth time in the past six years, judges have been denied a cost-of-living raise. As a result, the annual pay for U.S. judges has declined by 16 percent since 1993 when inflation is taken into account, he said.

The seven-member sentencing commission is supposed to review and adjust the punishments for federal crimes, but the administration and Congress have not acted on new nominees to the panel.

Pub Date: 1/01/99

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