In the wake of bombings in the 1990s at the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City federal building, Congress passed a wide-ranging "effective death penalty" law. One provision was especially contentious: It restricted the ability of federal courts to intervene in state criminal cases.
Nearly 20 years later, Supreme Court interpretations of the law have robbed federal judges of much of their power to overturn convictions obtained in state court, where the vast majority of criminal defendants are tried. Long considered a safety valve for the unjustly convicted, federal courts are now barred by legal rules from second-guessing state judges in all but the most extreme cases.
The tensions stirred by the law are increasingly visible on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears state cases from the West. Time after time, 9th Circuit judges find fault with decisions by the California courts, where judges appear on the ballot and often struggle under crushing caseloads.
But the federal jurists are restrained by the law from acting.
"We now have to stand by in impotent silence, even though it may appear to us that an innocent person has been convicted," 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee, wrote in June in a Georgetown law review.
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