Justice Backs Death Penalty Freeze

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg supports a proposed state moratorium on the death penalty, saying that accused murderers with good lawyers "do not get the death penalty."

Ginsburg criticized the often "meager" amount of money spent to defend poor people, and said she would be "glad to see" Maryland become the second state after Illinois to pass a moratorium on imposition of the death penalty. But the effort failed a few hours later when Maryland lawmakers adjourned for the year without voting on the measure.

"I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial," Ginsburg said in a lecture Monday on the importance of public service law.

"People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty," she added later.

Ginsburg has gone on record as saying she would have granted last-minute stays, or delays, in capital cases. The Supreme Court has at least a five-member majority in favor of the death penalty in general.

The justices have agreed to hear a case next fall testing whether mentally retarded people may be executed.

Speaking at the University of the District of Columbia, Ginsburg also proposed a legal service corps on the model of VISTA public service program that sends mostly young volunteers to help the poor.

"How much healthier to enlist young people in this kind of community service than to sign them up for armed combat," she said.

Ginsburg ducked a question about the Bush v. Gore case that ended ballot recounts in Florida and effectively decided the 2000 election for President Bush, saying she made her point in her written dissent. She was among the four-member minority that supported the continued recounts sought by Democratic candidate Al Gore.

Politically liberal lawyers, professors and politicians made up much of the audience at the public, open-enrollment university. Ginsburg smiled but did not applaud during partisan introductory remarks by B. Michael Rauh, president of the District of Columbia School of Law Foundation.

Although identified with liberals and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, public service law or other legal work donated by lawyers to the needy is not strictly a liberal cause, Ginsburg said.

"Our system of justice works best when opposing positions are well represented and fully aired. I, therefore, greet the expansion of responsible public-interest lawyering on the conservative side as something good for the system and hardly a development to be deplored," she said.

She cited the work of three conservative public interest law groups: the Washington Legal Foundation, Pacific Legal Foundation and Mountain States Legal Foundation. All are frequent participants in Supreme Court cases.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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