Judges should keep
own sentence records


Federal chief judges in Western states are complaining about a law that limits their discretion in sentencing criminals.

FEDERAL judges in Hawaii and other Western states are rightfully upset about a new law that limits their discretion in sentencing people. However, their anger voiced in a two-day meeting in California was mild compared with that of a judge in New York who is videotaping sentencings in his court to illustrate his reasons for ordering punishment more lenient than federal guidelines. A more appropriate response would be for judges to keep records that make their case.

Without consulting judges, Congress enacted a law last spring that orders a commission to keep track of sentences and report to Congress any sentence more lenient than federal guidelines. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has called the law an attempt to "intimidate" judges, and the 15 chief judges of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals registered "virtual unanimity" in their disdain for the law, said Judge John Coughenour of Seattle. The group includes Judge David Ezra of Hawaii.

A few days later, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein of New York ordered the videotaping of a sentencing to accompany any appeal and show the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals why a "downward departure" of the guidelines was warranted. "It would be very hard to do that without seeing the defendant," Weinstein said. The defendant was videotaped with her two children while her attorney argued the case.

Supporters of the new law, backed enthusiastically by Attorney General John Ashcroft, claim that it is intended to deal with judges "undermining sentencing fairness throughout the federal system" by sentencing defendants to lesser punishment than the guidelines indicate. However, Judge Ancer Haggerty of Oregon says Congress used misleading statistics in arriving at that conclusion.

"If you look at the overall number of times a judge supposedly departed (from the guidelines), it was done at the request of the government in most cases," Haggerty said.

In those cases, the federal prosecutor typically asks for leniency in the sentencing of a person who has cooperated with authorities in gathering evidence against other offenders. Judges should make a record of such sentencings in asking Congress to repeal the law.


Probe of 9/11 attacks
should be thorough


The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks wants an extension of its deadline to do its work.

THE American people and the families of those who died in the worst terrorist attacks on the United States deserve a full and complete accounting of how these horrible acts occurred and what can be done to avoid another.

Congress should freely grant the independent commission charged with the investigation ample time to conduct its work.

The panel, called the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, says it needs at least two more months beyond its May 27 deadline to finish its inquiry, but Bush administration and congressional Republicans are anxious about an extension. They fear that its report with potentially damaging information will emerge when the president's re-election campaign is in full swing.

To appease the White House, John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, the two senators who authored the bill that created the commission, are proposing that the panel's deadline be extended to next January.

Bush and his congressional allies should have no objections to the extension since it would allow the panel to do its work in a nonpartisan environment and report after the November election.

The commission's preliminary findings have produced valuable information about how hijackers managed to elude security and crash passenger airliners into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. The panel found that the hijackers included known al-Qaida operatives on the State Department's watch list who had obviously doctored their passports and violated immigration laws while in the United States and that gaps in communication among various U.S. agencies allowed the hijackers to get on the planes.

The commission's duty is to produce as complete an explanation as possible about the attacks and to provide recommendations to correct problems that allowed them to take place. This is an exacting and important task and should not be hampered by political considerations.

The White House contends that the commission should do its work as quickly as possible, but has placed roadblocks in its path, delaying turning over documents and other evidence and resisting testimony from its officials.

In any case, speed isn't the goal here. The commission's aim is to bring forth a careful, comprehensive review to prevent other attacks. The White House could not disagree with that.



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