Sotomayor's First Criminal Opinion Disappoints

Supreme Court Justice Sonja Sotomayor's issued her first signed criminal opinion this morning in Wood v Allen, upholding the death penalty for a man with a borderline IQ. It affirms the 11th Circuit's denial of habeas relief, deferring to the Alabama Supreme Court's decision under AEDPA that defense counsel was not ineffective, because he made a "strategic decision" not to present evidence of the mental deficiencies.

Justice Stevens and Kenney dissented. (Opinion here.) [More...]

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Justice Department Power to Speed Up State Executions

While we're on the topic of the Patriot Act today, the L.A. Times reports that the Justice Department may begin using one of its rarely noted provisions -- one that gives the Attorney General the power to shorten the time period within which state death row inmates can file federal appeals of their death sentences. New regulations have been proposed to implement the power.

The rules implement a little-noticed provision in last year's reauthorization of the Patriot Act that gives the attorney general the power to decide whether individual states are providing adequate counsel for defendants in death penalty cases. The authority has been held by federal judges.

Under the rules now being prepared, if a state requested it and Gonzales agreed, prosecutors could use "fast track" procedures that could shave years off the time that a death row inmate has to appeal to the federal courts after conviction in a state court.

As for what the new regulations provide:

The procedures would cut to six months, nstead of a year, the time that death row inmates have to file federal appeals once their cases have been resolved in the state courts.

It would also impose strict guidelines on federal judges for deciding such inmates' petitions. Federal district judges would have 450 days, appeals courts 120 days.

If it weren't so serious, this line would make me laugh: "Proponents say that would prevent foot-dragging by liberal judges."

As if that's the problem given the number of wrongfully convicted people on death row, those denied adequate counsel and DNA testing at the state level, and a host of other constitutional guarantees.

It was bad enough that AEDPA limited habeas appeals to one year. This is even worse.

Update: The ACS blog has more.

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