NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Chief Justice Warns Against Federalizing Crimes

January 4, 1999

In his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist criticized Congress for making federal crimes out of offenses already covered by state laws. He attributed the trend to pressure in Congress to "appear responsive to every highly publicized societal ill or sensational crime."

Federalizing crimes has contributed to double-digit increases in the number of criminal cases in federal courts, he said, and "threatens to change entirely the nature of out federal system."

  • In offering examples of the federalizing trend he cited a 1994 law that allows a large number of arsons to be prosecuted as federal crimes.
  • In addition, he listed three 1992 laws -- the Anti-Car Theft Act, which federalizes carjacking offenses; the Child Support Recovery Act, which makes it a federal crime to fail to pay support for a child living in another state; and the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which makes it a federal offense to travel interstate to disrupt zoos or circuses.
  • Rehnquist said the number of federal criminal case filings rose by 15 percent to 57,691 in 1998.
  • He noted that not since 1972 have criminal filings risen by double digits and warned that the increase in the number of criminal cases in federal courts "threatens to change entirely the nature of our federal system."

The Chief Justice also urged the President and the Senate to end a political impasse of "stunning proportions" that has crippled the United States Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for setting standards for federal criminal sentences. That panel, which since October has had no members,"is unable to perform some of its core and crucial responsibilities," Rehnquist said.

Created in 1984, the commission's main purpose has been to establish guidelines for meting out punishment to those convicted of federal crimes. "The President and the Senate should give this situation their immediate attention," he added.

Source: AP, "Too Many Offenses Are Made U.S. Crimes, Rehnquist Says," New York Times, January 1, 1999.


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