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Habeas Corpus - Relationship Of Federal Habeas To State Postconviction

review claims court rights

The availability, scope, and significance of state postconviction review has changed dramatically over the past half century. Prior to the 1950s, state postconviction remedies consisted almost entirely of common law writs, most prominently habeas corpus and coram nobis. These writs did not generally afford state inmates a meaningful opportunity to adjudicate federal constitutional issues.

State habeas corpus, like its federal counterpart, had originally served primarily as a vehicle for challenging pretrial or extrajudicial detentions. When state inmates invoked habeas to challenge their continued detention after conviction, state courts did not view the writ as a basis for revisiting every legal issue bearing on the conviction. Rather, state courts often described their inquiry as confined to "jurisdictional" questions and they repeated the black letter rule that habeas relief was available only if the challenged conviction was not merely "voidable" but absolutely "void." The jurisdictional limitation rendered state habeas an unpromising means of addressing federal constitutional claims because such claims were not ordinarily thought to undermine the basic authority of the trial court to conduct the proceedings leading to the challenged conviction.

Coram nobis, on the other hand, was the traditional postconviction mechanism for revisiting convictions based on non-record facts. Coram nobis was available in the court of conviction—not in a reviewing or appellate court—and it did not generally extend to pure legal error. Moreover, coram nobis did not afford relief unless the newly found facts would have resulted in a different judgment. Accordingly state coram nobis remedies also seemed an unlikely means of vindicating federal constitutional rights.

The problem of state enforcement of federal constitutional rights, though, was not simply a matter of putting ancient writs to modern uses. In the first half of the century, states seemed less than zealous in protecting defendants' rights. Perceived state hostility to federal rights and irregularities in state criminal procedures—including the absence of effective postconviction review—no doubt encouraged federal courts to review state convictions for constitutional error through federal habeas corpus.

As federal habeas review of federal constitutional claims became more common and intrusive with the Warren Court's extraordinary expansion of due process rights for state prisoners, states had strong incentives to develop more extensive postconviction procedures. These procedures protected state convictions from federal review in two important respects: first, state fact-finding in postconviction would ordinarily earn deference in federal court, allowing state courts to shape the future federal habeas litigation; second, additional postconviction opportunities for state prisoners meant additional opportunities to enforce state procedural rules, leading to increased forfeitures in federal court.

The expansion of state postconviction review, though welcome in some respects, has unfortunately also delayed federal habeas review of federal claims. Of course, some delay is unavoidable if state courts are to assume initial responsibility for adjudicating federal rights; if states fail to provide a forum for non-record claims, inmates must litigate these claims in the first instance on federal habeas. But state postconviction review also delays federal review of record claims that could be fully adjudicated in the state courts on direct appeal (without any additional recourse to state postconviction). Delays between state court resolution and federal habeas resolution of record claims contributes to the perception—and reality—that federal habeas undermines the finality of state convictions.

Overall, the dynamic interplay between federal habeas and state postconviction has produced a tremendously burdensome system for reviewing federal claims. Concerns about the adequacy of state criminal justice systems led to the recognition of federal constitutional rights and the expansion of the federal remedy of habeas corpus. Robust federal habeas in turn led to widespread adoption of extensive state postconviction proceedings, primarily to limit intrusive federal court review. The introduction of extensive state postconviction proceedings substantially delays federal review of federal claims and increases the costs of ultimately granting relief in federal court. Recognizing these costs, Congress and the Court have in recent years erected labyrinthine obstacles to merits review on federal habeas.

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