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Habeas Corpus - The Proceduralization Of Federal Habeas Corpus

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Just as the Warren Court's "revolution" of criminal procedure became a target of extensive criticism, federal habeas's role in implementing the revolution also came under attack. Some critics argued that federal habeas had become excessively intrusive on legitimate state interests, notably the finality of state criminal convictions and comity for state courts. Other critics noted that the habeas remedy had strayed far from its historic common law roots as primarily a pretrial remedy. Despite regular efforts to limit federal habeas legislatively in the three decades after Brown, though, Congress refused to enact any meaningful habeas reform.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court took the lead in reshaping and restricting the scope of the habeas forum. First, the Court imposed stricter rules governing procedural defaults, shifting the burden to petitioners to justify failing to comply with state procedural rules. These strict rules applied even in capital cases, with the result that a death-row inmate could lose all federal review of his constitutional claims based on his attorney's filing a state habeas appeal three days late (Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991)). In addition, the Court adopted more onerous requirements for filing both same-claim and new-claim successive habeas petitions, essentially limiting state prisoners to one opportunity to litigate federal claims—not one opportunity to litigate each federal claim—in federal court even if new facts or new law subsequently confirmed or revealed additional constitutional violations.

Perhaps the most significant Court-initiated reform concerned its limitation on the retroactive availability of "new" constitutional law on federal habeas. Prior to the mid-1960s, the Court drew no important distinctions between inmates' claims seeking the benefit of new law and those seeking vindication of clearly established or longstanding constitutional doctrines. All decisions enforcing the constitutional rights of criminal defendants were simply presumed to have full retroactive effect. But the unprecedented expansion of criminal defendants' rights after the incorporation decisions prompted the Court to limit the impact of the growing constitutional criminal protections. At first, the Court adopted a balancing test that led to the retroactive application of some but not all of the new constitutional decisions. More recently, the Court adopted a presumptive rule prohibiting petitioners from seeking the benefit of new law on habeas; under the Court's approach, a federal habeas petitioner can avoid the nonretroactivity bar against newlaw claims only if the rule sought (or established in a recent decision) renders the underlying conduct of the petitioner unpunishable or represents a "watershed" contribution to the criminal justice system that substantially increases the reliability of the guilt-innocence determination (Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989)).

The nonretroactivity doctrine has been of extraordinary practical significance. The Court's expansive conception of "new" law, which focuses on whether a petitioner's claim was "clearly dictated" by prior precedent, has blocked retroactive application of many decisions far less dramatic or path-breaking than the Warren Court rulings that had given rise to the doctrine. At the same time, courts have construed the exceptions quite narrowly. Few new rules prohibit states from punishing certain conduct at all, and, in the numerous retroactivity cases litigated at the Supreme Court level, the Court has declined to identify any new rule as sufficiently fundamental to command retroactive application.

By the early 1990s, the Court's procedural default, successive petition, and nonretroactivity decisions had significantly eroded state inmates' efforts to receive federal review of the federal lawfulness of their convictions via federal habeas corpus. In addition, the infamous 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City led Congress to substantially revisit the scope of federal habeas review for the first time in over 125 years. The resulting legislation, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), was signed within days of the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Whereas the previous habeas statute had extended the writ to all persons held in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States, the AEDPA additionally requires that the challenged state adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" (28 U.S.C. §2254(d)). The Court has recently construed this language as replacing the de novo standard articulated in Brown (Williams v. Taylor, 526 U.S. 1050 (1999)). According to the Court, this language requires federal habeas courts to sustain "reasonable" but "wrong" state court adjudications of federal rights. In addition, the AEDPA imposes a new limitations period on filing federal habeas petitions and further cuts habeas review of successive petitions.

The Court-initiated procedural obstacles to habeas review, together with the new "reasonableness" standard of review of the AEDPA, have transformed federal habeas into an enormously complex forum. Instead of debating whether a state prisoner's conviction or sentence violates federal constitutional norms, the parties and federal courts devote extraordinary resources attempting to resolve questions of procedural default, retroactivity, and the "reasonableness" of state court decision-making. In some respects, the current scope of federal habeas for state prisoners could be viewed as a compromise between advocates of federal supervision over state criminal processes and defenders of state autonomy. The compromise protects the fundamental jurisdictional power of the federal courts to review unconstitutional convictions of state prisoners. Yet the compromise increasingly saddles such jurisdiction with arcane and often insurmountable procedural barriers. For many critics, this state of affairs should be lamented because it sustains the appearance of extensive federal supervision of federal rights despite the reality of truncated and increasingly limited review.

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