Court, Legislature need consensus

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 5, 1999

For the last year, the state Supreme Court has flexed its collective muscle searching for a way to insure that death row inmates receive adequate defense on their appeals.

State law requires mandatory appeals on all death convictions – and it should. No one wants to risk the possibility of executing an innocent person. Currently some 63 inmates are on death row. The last execution was 10 years ago.

While the court’s motives are well-intentioned, its methods have caused a bit of a riff in many attorney circles.

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Early this year, justices used their authority to specify the qualifications necessary for attorneys before they can be selected to defend death row appeals. Several attorneys have said that only a handful of attorneys in the state meet those strict requirements.

Critics cried foul and pointed out that given the limited number of attorneys who meet the requirements, the system set up a seller’s market for those select attorneys.

In response, the justices decided to allow trial judges determine how much these attorneys should be paid for their work. Both of the court’s moves were attempts to solve a problem without dealing with our often difficult-to-deal-with Legislature.

The real issue at hand is that some justices favor a statewide public defender system. Such a system would ensure that everyone gets taxpayer-funded defense for both their initial trial and on their appeal. The system may be a good thing, but we don’t know enough about it yet.

Members of the Legislature who keep watch over the state’s purse strings don’t support such a system because, among other things, they believe it is too costly.

Perhaps our public officials – justices and lawmakers – should stop trying to work around one another and search for a way to build a consensus between the two sides instead of avoiding the confrontation.