WASHINGTON — In the next several months, the Supreme Court will decide at least a half-dozen cases about the rights of people accused of crimes involving drugs, sex and corruption. Civil liberties groups and associations of defense lawyers have lined up on the side of the accused.
But so have conservative, libertarian and business groups. Their briefs and public statements are signs of an emerging consensus on the right that the criminal justice system is an aspect of big government that must be contained.
The development represents a sharp break with tough-on-crime policies associated with the Republican Party since the Nixon administration.
“It’s a remarkable phenomenon,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The left and the right have bent to the point where they are now in agreement on many issues. In the area of criminal justice, the whole idea of less government, less intrusion, less regulation has taken hold.”
Edwin Meese III, who was known as a fervent supporter of law and order as attorney general in the Reagan administration, now spends much of his time criticizing what he calls the astounding number and vagueness of federal criminal laws.
Mr. Meese once referred to the American Civil Liberties Union as part of the “criminals’ lobby.” These days, he said, “in terms of working with the A.C.L.U., if they want to join us, we’re happy to have them.”
Dick Thornburgh, who succeeded Mr. Meese as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and stayed on under President George Bush, echoed that sentiment inCongressional testimony in July.
“The problem of overcriminalization is truly one of those issues upon which a wide variety of constituencies can agree,” Mr. Thornburgh said. “Witness the broad and strong support from such varied groups as the Heritage Foundation, the Washington Legal Foundation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the A.B.A., the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society and the A.C.L.U.”
In an interview at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group where he is a fellow, Mr. Meese said the “liberal ideas of extending the power of the state” were to blame for an out-of-control criminal justice system. “Our tradition has always been,” he said, “to construe criminal laws narrowly to protect people from the power of the state.”
There are, the foundation says, more than 4,400 criminal offenses in the federal code, many of them lacking a requirement that prosecutors prove traditional kinds of criminal intent.
“It’s a violation of federal law to give a false weather report,” Mr. Meese said. “People get put in jail for importing lobsters.”
Such so-called overcriminalization is at the heart of the conservative critique of crime policy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the point in a recent friend-of-the-court brief about a federal law often used to prosecute corporate executives and politicians. The law, which makes it a crime for officials to defraud their employers of “honest services,” is, the brief said, both “unintelligible” and “used to target a staggeringly broad swath of behavior.”
The Supreme Court will hear three cases concerning the honest-services law this term, indicating an exceptional interest in the topic.
Harvey A. Silverglate, a left-wing civil liberties lawyer in Boston, says he has been surprised and delighted by the reception that his new book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” has gotten in conservative circles. (A Heritage Foundation official offered this reporter a copy.)