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Pursuit of Justice Can Turn Tragic

October 2, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Someone defiantly waves a parking ticket just plucked from a car’s windshield and declares, ``I’ll fight this all the way to the Supreme Court.″ The cliche pokes fun at some folks’ low threshold for outrage but also invokes a grand notion of access to justice.

In real life, the outraged pursuit of justice is no joke. In Susan Klat’s case, it took a tragic turn.

Ms. Klat was working as an intensive-care nurse in San Diego when in 1995 she sued the state government over losing custody of her child. Her federal lawsuit was dismissed but she pursued appeals to the Supreme Court.

Each year, more than 7,000 appeals reach the nation’s highest court. All but 70 or 80 are rejected, and lower court rulings are left undisturbed.

Ms. Klat’s appeal was turned down in 1996, and she could not bear that. She began telling friends she would move to the nation’s capital to ensure her case got heard. After moving to Washington, she told co-workers she was going to the Supreme Court and would ``blow away anybody″ who stood in her way.

In one letter to the court, Ms. Klat said, ``One shouldn’t have to resort to creating casualties such as the Oklahoma bombing to get your attention. Unfortunately, experience shows that this is the only method that creates change and actually works.″

Irene Landsman, a psychology professor at Catholic University, has not studied Ms. Klat’s case but has seen other people ``who have come into contact with the court system and have their illusions shattered.″

``Their illusion is that the courts represent a perfect, all-powerful system that will see right to the truth. And people can become quite obsessed when something traumatic has occurred,″ she said.

Ms. Klat eventually was arrested by the FBI and charged with threatening to assault Supreme Court Clerk William Suter and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Convicted, she was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison, where she is now, but her conviction recently was called into doubt by a federal appeals court.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that a judge erred in allowing Ms. Klat to represent herself while the issue of her competency to stand trial was being addressed. ``Where a defendant’s competence to stand trial is reasonably in question, a court may not allow that defendant to waive her right to counsel ... until the issue of competency has been resolved,″ the appeals court said.

The Supreme Court has never said that, but 32 years ago the justices said defendants cannot waive their right to hearings when their competency to stand trial is in question.

``We find it contradictory,″ the appeals court said, ``to conclude that a defendant whose competency is reasonably in question could nevertheless knowingly and intelligently waive her ... right to counsel.″

Ms. Klat’s case now is back before a federal trial judge, who must decide whether a lawyer helping her would have changed the outcome of her competency hearing. If so, her conviction must be set aside.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Richard Carelli covers the Supreme Court and legal issues for The Associated Press.

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