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Supreme Court Chides Ninth Circuit on Delays in Harris Execution

California's execution of Robert Alton Harris - the state's first execution in 25 years - has highlighted tension between the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals over the death penalty appeals process.

Judges on the Ninth Circuit issued four last-minute stays of execution for Harris, and the Supreme Court promptly rejected each claim made on his behalf and lifted each stay, with members of the court remaining awake throughout the early morning hours of April 21 to do so. By dawn, the patience of the supreme Court majority was wearing thin, and the court issued an unusual order prohibiting any further stays of Harris's execution for any reason.

"No further stays of Robert Alton Harris' execution shall be entered by federal courts except upon order of this court," the Supreme Court said, with Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens dissenting. Harris was put to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison less than an hour later.

Observers on both sides of the issue said the order barring such actions by a lower court before they could occur was unprecedented, but disagreed about who was at fault, the Supreme Court or the Ninth Circuit. "I've never heard anything like this,"New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said. "It's like criticizing a member of your family in the presence of a stranger."

Henry Schwarzschild, former director of the ACLU's Death Penalty Project, said the Supreme Court's final, preemptive order was "not only injudicious but also a profoundly unjudicial response." For the Supreme Court to respond angrily to claims that were significant enough to have been taken seriously by federal appeals court judges was "offensive to the legal profession and certainly to the judicial calling," Mr. Schwarzschild said.

In days following the Harris execution, the debate over what had occurred continued. Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit gave a speech at Yale Law School harshly criticizing the Supreme Court.

Judge Reinhardt asked: "Is it proper for the Supreme Court to issue an order denying all other federal courts the ability to exercise the power given them, not by the Supreme Court, but by law?" The Harris case was "a nightmare," he said. "It served no one well. The process was ugly, cruel, injudicious. At a critical time in history, the American legal system failed to function fairly or well."

Another Ninth Circuit judge, John T. Noonan, wrote an "oped" article for The New York Times accusing the Supreme Court of requiring lower federal courts to place a state's schedule for an execution above the obligation of a federal court to exercise its jurisdiction in a case that has been brought properly before it. That amounted to requiring "treason to the Constitution," Judge Noonan wrote.

From: Criminal Justice Newsletter

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