Saturday, January 3, 2004


Judges too restricted
by sentencing law


Chief Justice Rehnquist has criticized Congress for enacting a law that monitors judges for sentences that fall short of guidelines.

THE attachment of an antagonistic measure to highly popular legislation that was enacted by Congress last spring has Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist fuming, and rightly so. The provision interferes with federal judges' sentencing discretion. It orders a commission to keep track of sentences by every judge and report to Congress any sentence that is more lenient than federal guidelines, intruding on the independence of the judicial branch of government. The requirement should be repealed.

The provision was sponsored by Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., and supported by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It was attached to a bill that already had passed the Senate, creating a national Amber Alert network to find missing children and targeting child kidnappers, molesters and pornographers. Hawaii's link is called the Maile Alert after Maile Gilbert, a 6-year-old Kailua girl who was abducted and murdered in 1986.

The Feeney amendment instructed the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines, to issue new rules that will "ensure that the incidence of downward departures is substantially reduced." It ordered the commission to maintain sentencing records of each judge and provide them to the attorney general, who is to turn over the information to the House and Senate judiciary committees. Attorney General John Ashcroft relishes the opportunity to single out judges whom he perceives to be soft on crime.

The 27 judges who comprise the Judicial Conference of the United States, which makes policy for the federal courts, unanimously asked Congress in September to repeal the provision. Rehnquist, who heads the conference, focused on the provision in his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary.

Rehnquist said the information ordered to be cataloged "could appear to be an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate individual judges in the performance of their judicial duties." That was precisely the intention of Feeney and Sensenbrenner and is high on Ashcroft's agenda.

Sensenbrenner said the "growing problem" of judges sentencing defendants to lesser punishment than the guidelines' minimum has been "undermining sentencing fairness throughout the federal system." However, the more serious problem is the penchant of Congress to infringe on judicial independence by imposing mandatory sentences for a variety of crimes. Rehnquist criticized Congress for failing "at least to ask the judiciary its views on such a significant piece of legislation."

"By constitutional design," Rehnquist added, judges have "an institutional commitment to the independent administration of justice and are able to see the consequences of judicial reform proposals that legislative sponsors may not be in a position to see."


Rain isn’t sole factor
in New Year’s safety


Rain lowered the risk of fire during New Year's Eve festivities, but not the noise and smoke.

AS if to mock former Gov. Ben Cayetano's call for a statewide ban on fireworks, legislators last year considered whittling the cost of a fireworks permit. The price stayed the same, but sales of fireworks soared during the New Year holiday season. The result was an intolerable level of noise and smoke, although the soggy New Year's Eve kept fire damage to a minimum. A ban, except in public displays, would be a more reliable deterrent than rain.

Cayetano accurately described the 1998 New Year's Eve celebration as "utter madness" and called for an end to such nightmares. Honolulu's fire and police departments support such a ban, and a Star-Bulletin poll indicates the majority of Oahu's residents agree. Governor Lingle should join in this effort to bring sanity to the transition from one year to the next and to the celebration of our nation's birthday.

House Judiciary Chairman Eric Hamakawa of the Big Island proposed lowering the cost of a state fireworks permit from $25 to $10. Opponents prevailed, concerned that Hamakawa's ridiculous proposal would result in more people using fireworks.

Unfortunately, sales went up anyway. Licenses for merchants to sell fireworks rose from 106 in the days leading up to the 2003 New Year to 129 prior to this New Year. The number of permits issued to celebrants skyrocketed from about 8,500 to more than 10,000. Clearly, lowering the price would have been -- and still would be -- foolhardy.

Heavy rains did their best to control the damage this year. The Honolulu Fire Department responded to only six fireworks-related blazes from midnight Tuesday to midnight Wednesday, compared to 50 during the same period ending 2002. Brush fires were nonexistent in the first hours of this year.

Two families were left homeless and an 80-year-old Palolo woman died as a result of the festivities two years ago. This year's worst fireworks-related incident was when someone threw fireworks -- either a reckless act or arson -- through a window of a vacant house in Pakakolea, burning the house down, according to witnesses.



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