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Habeas Corpus - The Scope Of Federal Habeas Corpus

review court constitutional claims

The most controversial question surrounding federal habeas corpus concerns its appropriate role. This question has two components: how has federal habeas corpus functioned historically and how should it function today? The English version of the writ secured by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 primarily afforded a mechanism for challenging unauthorized pretrial detentions. The earliest habeas practice in the United States, both state and federal, likewise focused on defendants' rights against warrantless detentions and denials of bail. But throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prisoners sought, and in some cases received, habeas review of claims challenging criminal convictions.

Scholars disagree about the scope of federal habeas review during this period. One prominent scholar, Professor Paul Bator, famously insisted that federal habeas was simply not available to persons convicted by courts of competent jurisdiction; though federal habeas courts sometimes entertained an expansive conception of "jurisdiction," on Bator's view federal habeas was not generally a forum for revisiting legal or factual determinations after trial.

More recent scholarship asserts that federal habeas has always permitted some postconviction review of federal constitutional claims. One of the leading treatise authors on federal habeas, Professor James Liebman, maintains that the scope of federal habeas review during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was intimately connected to the availability of other forms of federal review of federal claims. On this view, the U.S. Supreme Court continually adjusted the scope of habeas review in both the state and federal prisoner cases based on whether some other federal jurisdictional vehicle was available to address substantial federal claims. In the federal prisoner context, for example, this thesis explains why the scope of federal habeas for federal prisoners diminished after Congress established federal appellate review of criminal convictions in 1891. In the state prisoner context, this account explains why the scope of habeas corpus increased when federal review as of right through writ of error became largely discretionary.

Yet another influential view argues that federal habeas review has always been quite broad, but that state prisoners rarely prevailed because of the narrowness of federal constitutional protections. According to this position, denials of habeas relief in landmark cases such as Frank v. Magnum, 237 U.S. 309 (1915), in which the Court rejected a claim of mob domination and jury intimidation at trial, were predicated on the Court's narrow readings of the due process clause. Frank lost, on this view, not because the Court refused to consider the merits of his constitutional claim via federal habeas, but because, as a matter of due process, state-court review of a mob-domination claim was constitutionally sufficient. Hence, when federal constitutional protections for state prisoners increased dramatically during the 1960s, the significance of federal habeas increased as well, and not necessarily because the nature of federal habeas itself had been altered.

The dispute surrounding the historic role of federal habeas is not merely academic. Although habeas corpus has both statutory and constitutional roots, the Court has repeatedly focused on historical practice in deciding the appropriate reach of the writ. Indeed, in a much-publicized decision concerning the scope of federal habeas review, two factions of the Court offered conflicting historical accounts to support their respective views as to whether federal habeas courts should defer to state court determinations of mixed lawfact determinations (Wright v. West, 505 U.S. 277 (1992)).

Habeas Corpus - The Emergence Of Modern Federal Habeas Corpus [next] [back] Habeas Corpus - Constitutional Protection Of The Writ Of Habeas Corpus

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