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An Act of Conscience?

The death penalty debate is one of the great moral issues of our time. It is also one of the easiest. You are either in favor of capital punishment or against it. Not a whole lot of wiggle room.

Great moral issues also create the opportunity for heroism and great moral statements. Some times it takes an act of courage by a person in a position of power to change perspectives.

Chief United States District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny has been given an opportunity to make such a statement arising from efforts to execute Michael Ross in Connecticut. If Chatigny has the courage of his convictions, and truly believes that an injustice is occurring in the handling of the Ross case, he will resign in protest to register his dissent. It would not be an act of civil disobedience, but it would be prompted by the same sense that the law is so wrong it cannot be followed.

Chatigny created controversy in Connecticut by threatening to have Ross's lawyer disbarred if the lawyer did not stop an impending execution. Ross had directed the lawyer to waive any further habeas petitions. Ross was prepared to die. In several weeks of furious activity, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the United States Supreme Court ruled that Ross's waiver was knowing, intelligent and voluntary. Hours before the execution, when all legal avenues were blocked, Chatigny took matters into his own hands and issued his threat.

Chatigny has been grieved to the Second Circuit for his extra-legal antics by seven state prosecutors. Bad Boy, Bobby  Of course, the complaint is secret -- judges don't air the dirty laundry beneath their robes. And, of course, the defense bar sings the judge's praise: Give us what we want and you are a hero, they have all but declared.  All I Want for Christmas is a Judge Like Bob

New compentency hearings were held in the wake of Chatigny's tantrum. Ross has been found competent, and is set for execution on May 11.

Chatigny intervened because he said he could not live with the outcome. He thought a miscarriage of justice was about to occur. What's he going to do now?

Here's a draft of a brief statement a man of conviction might make:

"I was honored to accept lifetime appointment as a federal judge, and vowed to do justice and to see that the laws were faithfully applied.

"Consistent with that duty I did what justice required to stop the execution of Michael Ross. That execution is now set to go forward, and, although I am sworn to uphold the law, I am persuaded to a moral certainty that an injustice will occur if Michael Ross is killed.

"I am therefore resigning effective immediately from my position as a federal judge so that my energies may be devoted to correcting this injustice, and so that I may devote myself and my energies to avoiding the repitition of any further miscarriage of justice.

"I reach this decision with a heavy heart, but with a clean conscience. I cannot sit by and watch my colleagues and my country kill with equanimity. If I cannot stop injustice as a judge, I will endeavor to do so an advocate."

Let's see if he does it.