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A big vote for the courts

"I may find myself displeased today, but tomorrow I may find myself singing 'Happy Days Are Here Again.'" This was one of the jauntier arguments heard by the American Bar Association against the flurry of bills calling for congressional limits on the jurisdiction of federal courts. It was made by Oklahoma delegate Joe Stamper, relishing the surprise of those expecting that his well-known conservatism might put him on the side of the limiters.

But Mr. Stamper properly illustrated that the invasion of court jurisdiction is not a liberal-conservative issue. A whole political spectrum at the lawyers' convention in New Orleans joined in overwhelming support of a resolution opposing the bills in question. And it was welcome to hear presidential counselor Meese express caution about the limitation efforts.

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The bills would remove such controversial matters as abortion and school prayer from the jurisdiction of federal judges. But the specific content is not the point. It is the whole question of tampering with a court system that has been a bulwark of justice under America's separation of powers.

Judges, of course, should always be worthy of the powers and independence granted them. CBS News recently brought to the nation disturbing images of judges not only legally resisting financial disclosure laws, as they have every right to do, but seeming to evade them. There have been instances of judges involved in cases potentially affecting their own financial interests.The Supreme Court has upheld the disclosure requirements for federal judges. Certainly the public deserves this degree of assurance that judgments are independent of self-interest.

But they must also be independent of governmental pressures. Independence and integrity become particularly important if the present moves to reduce the protection of defendants are successful. Among these are efforts to allow a kind of preventive detention through withholding bail and to modify or overturn the prohibition on using illegally obtained evidence. With such options the untrammeled judgment of the courts is obviously essential.

As Joe Stamper suggested, one day a person might like the outcome better than another. But the possibility for evenhanded justice must be preserved. As he simply said, "to deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction when their decisions displease you is unwise."

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