- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Delaware lawmakers scrambled this week to pass legislation overturning a state Supreme Court ruling that could result in the release of nearly 200 prison inmates serving time for murder, rape and other heinous crimes.

In November, the state’s Supreme Court justices ruled that sentences of life with parole should be considered 45-year prison terms under the language of the state’s sentencing laws.

“I’m not sure what they were thinking,” state Sen. James T. Vaughn, a Democrat, said of the justices.

The ruling applies to convictions before June 1990, when the state last passed sentencing legislation.

Lawmakers rushed to respond in the first two days of this year’s legislative session and quickly passed a bill that calls the state Supreme Court ruling “null and void.” Mr. Vaughn was one of the sponsors.

However, some lawmakers have questioned the constitutionality of quickly passing a bill to mute the state’s highest court. It remains to be seen whether Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, will sign the bill into law.

“There are constitutional issues that have been raised and which will have to be reviewed before the governor decides,” a spokesman for Mrs. Minner told The Washington Times.

The spokesman said the governor was “looking at whether there are other legislative options [of] addressing the situation that would not raise constitutional issues.”

State Rep. Wayne A. Smith, a Republican and the bill’s initial sponsor, said the justices had simply misread the language of the state law.

The situation has the makings of a legal quagmire.

Mr. Vaughn said lawmakers who approved the bill were more concerned about protecting “the safety of the people of the state” than about the legal consequences.

“In my judgment, we protect the people then we study the constitutional issues,” he said.

Mr. Smith, however, said the legislature had full power to overturn the court ruling.

“Under our constitution, the general assembly is the lawmaking body,” he said. “When you have the action of another branch that changes the laws as clearly written, then we have a constitutional duty to correct that error.”

The state Supreme Court issued the ruling in November in the case of Ward T. Evans, who was convicted of first-degree rape and sentenced in 1982 to life with the possibility of parole.

After being denied parole three times, Evans, 57, appealed to lower Delaware courts last year, arguing that he had committed rape more than 20 years ago, at a time when Delaware law defined a life sentence with the possibility of parole as a 45-year prison term.

Lower court judges rejected that argument before the case reached the Supreme Court.

Corrections officials have said that Evans would be one of 67 convicted rapists to be set free by the latest ruling.

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