Rehnquist rips PROTECT Act

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan. 1 (UPI) -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in a year-end report released Thursday, ripped a federal law he said comes close to intimidating federal judges who hand down lighter sentences.

By singling out judges who occasionally veer from the toughest sentencing, the law "could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties," the chief justice said.


Rehnquist also blasted Congress for failing to fully fund the federal judiciary.

Though he heads the Supreme Court, Rehnquist is "chief justice of the United States" and was speaking for the entire federal judiciary.

In the "2003 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary," his 18th since becoming chief justice, Rehnquist said lack of funding was hurting the effectiveness of the federal courts. With appropriations legislation stalled in Congress, the judiciary is among those government units still operating on continuing resolutions -- continuation of previous funding levels, rather than new funding.


"The fiscal year 2004 budget process has been a difficult one," Rehnquist said in the report, "and the judiciary's appropriations for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 will not be enacted until sometime in January 2004, at the earliest. The delay in enacting an appropriations bill has disrupted the judiciary and forced it to operate at inadequate levels of funding under continuing resolutions."

Rehnquist said the judiciary appreciated an omnibus appropriations bill that includes $222 million for new courthouses and $248 million to repair existing ones. But he said the total funding package was inadequate.

"The continuing uncertainties and delays in the funding process have necessitated substantial effort on the part of judges and judiciary managers and staff to modify budget systems, develop contingency plans, cancel activities and attempt to cut costs," the chief justice said. "Many courts face hiring freezes, furloughs or reductions in force."

Rehnquist also slammed the PROTECT Act, enacted by Congress this year and already criticized sharply by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the administrative body of the U.S. courts.

"During the last year," Rehnquist said, "it seems the traditional interchange between the Congress and the judiciary broke down when Congress enacted what is known as the PROTECT Act, making some rather dramatic changes to the laws governing the federal sentencing process."


Congress has the right to indicate it thinks there have been too many downward departures from sentencing guidelines, the chief justice said.

"But the PROTECT Act was enacted without any consideration of the views of the judiciary. ... It surely improves the legislative process at least to ask the judiciary its views on such a significant piece of legislation. ...

"Among the provisions in the act that many find troubling," Rehnquist continued, "is that requiring the collection of downward departure information on an individual judge-by-judge basis." In other words, the Justice Department formally will keep track of those judges who occasionally hand down lighter sentences than those set in sentencing guidelines.

Rehnquist said Congress has the right to change the rules on how judges operate.

"Collecting downward departure information on a judge-by-judge basis, however, seems to me somewhat troubling," Rehnquist said. "For side-by-side with the broad authority of Congress to legislate and gather information in this area is the principle that federal judges are not to be removed from office for their judicial acts. The subject matter of the questions Congress may pose about judges' decisions, and whether they target the judicial decisions of individualized federal judges, could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties."


In another section of his report, Rehnquist pointed out that downward departures in federal sentencing rose from 5.8 percent in 1991 to 18.1 percent in 2001. But he added that 40 percent of downward departures are requested by the Justice Department.

Department prosecutors often request lighter sentences for defendants who are cooperating in a larger investigation.

Also in the year-end report, Rehnquist said filings at the Supreme Court increased from 7,924 in the 2001 term to 8,255 in the 2002 term, which ended Oct. 1, 2003.

Of those 2002 filings, 6,386 were "pauper" cases in which petitioners paid no fees, up 5.8 percent from the previous term.

The high court also heard 84 cases in the 2002 term, and resolved 79 of them in 71 signed opinions. That was down from 88 argued cases in the 2001 Term, 85 of which were resolved in 76 signed opinions.

In fiscal 2003, the federal courts again experienced record case filings, Rehnquist said. Federal courts of appeal cases grew 6 percent to 60,847. Criminal cases in trial courts hit a record 70,642, breaking a record set in 1932, one year before the 18th Amendment -- the Prohibition Amendment -- was repealed. Civil cases declined 8 percent to 252,962 in fiscal 2003.


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