(1) What do you mean by “habeas corpus”?
Well, there are actually several different types of habeas corpus proceedings. Many people have become familiar with habeas corpus through the Gitmo cases where those prisoners have challenged the propriety of their detention by the U.S. Government. That is not the type of habeas corpus that this blog will cover.
This blog is going to focus on habeas corpus “petitions” filed by state prisoners in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in which the state prisoner argues that his detention by state officials violates one of his federal constitutional rights. What this means is that a state prisoner filing a federal habeas corpus petition must allege that the prisoner is in state custody (which has a broad meaning) and that there was a violation of the prisoner’s federal constitutional rights at some point during a state criminal proceeding.
(2) What is the AEDPA?
The AEDPA is the acronym for the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act from 1996. This law drastically revised the § 2254 statute, making it even harder for state prisoners to obtain federal habeas relief. Although the AEDPA changes were codified in various statutes, often times, courts will simply say “under the AEDPA.” They really mean under the habeas statute as amended by the AEDPA. We are now over a decade beyond the passage of the law, and many of the kinks in the statute have been worked out, but some still remain.
(3) What is the “standard of review”?
The “standard of review” in a habeas corpus really means what the state prisoner must show in order to obtain federal habeas relief. The “standard of review” is defined in § 2254(d). Under that section, a state prisoner must show that a state court decision on a federal constitutional claim is either “contrary to” or “an unreasonable application” of “clearly established” “Supreme Court precedent.” Each of these terms term in quotes, as is typical with the law, has its own independent meaning. Confusing, I know. Welcome to the world of habeas corpus.
(4) What does it mean for a claim to have been “exhausted”?
“Exhaustion” is kind of a federalism/state rights concept. Before a state prisoner can obtain federal habeas relief, the prisoner must first have “exhausted” all state court remedies. It means that the prisoner must have raised the federal constitutional claim at all possible moments in the state court proceeding before coming to federal court to get relief. The idea is to give the state court all possible chances to correct the error before the federal court will intervene. At least, I think that is why it was originally developed.
(5) You just casually mentioned the term “procedural default.” Can you please explain what this odd sounding term means?
Habeas corpus proceedings can be very complex. There are numerous procedural hurdles that have been erected that a habeas petitioner must leap over in order to obtain relief from the federal court. One obstacle that has been developed is a broad category known as the “procedural default.” There are different types of procedural defaults. But generally speaking, a procedural default is where the state prisoner violated a procedural rule in state court where the state court refused to examine the merits of the claim due to the procedural violation. In habeas corpus land, that procedural “default” now bars relief in federal court. There are limited ways to overcome the default. One is through a showing of “cause and prejudice.” Yes, I know, you are thinking, more obscure terms. But it really is quite simple – in theory. Cause is cause – there was some reason why the prisoner violated the procedural rule. Prejudice is prejudice – the procedural violation resulted in real harm to the prisoner. There is also an actual innocence exception to the procedural default rule. A prisoner can say, yes there was a procedural default, but I am actually innocent so you need to overlook the default. It’s rare.
(6) Is there a time limit on bringing a federal habeas proceeding?
The AEDPA created (see, even I am talking about it in that way – see FAQ 2) a one-year time limit for bringing a habeas petition. This one-year begins to run when the state criminal conviction becomes final. Finality generally refers to the time period when the state court appeal has ended.
(7) How many habeas petitions can a state prisoner file? What are “second and successive petitions”?
A state prisoner is only allowed to file one petition. Every claim that the petitioner wants to raise must be in there. If there is a claim that the petitioner can still raise in state court, often times the federal court will pause the federal proceeding and let the state prisoner head back to state court to seek relief first. Once that is done (and assuming the state prisoner loses, which is likely), the federal proceeding then goes forward. In very limited situations, a state prisoner can file a second or successive (meaning more than two) habeas petition. The AEDPA (there it is again) limited the situations under which that can be done. They are generally limited to newly discovered evidence situations and claims that involve brand new Supreme Court precedent that has been made retroactive to the state prisoner’s case.
(8) You just mentioned “retroactivity” in the prior FAQ. What are you talking about?
Another beautifully confusing aspect of habeas corpus is the concept of retroactivity. A state court prisoner can only obtain relief based on a Supreme Court decision if that decision was decided before the state prisoner’s state criminal conviction became final. This means that, in habeasland, most new decisions do not apply retroactively. But there are situations where they do. And that’s where it all gets confusing. The Supreme Court developed a counter-intuitive rule in a case called Teague v. Lane to analyze whether a case should apply retroactively. I won’t go into here because it would probably lead to about ten more FAQ’s. If it comes up, I’ll try and explain.
(9) What is a “certificate of appealability”?
After a habeas corpus petition is denied in the district court, a habeas petitioner does not have an automatic right to appeal that decision to the federal appeals court. In another attempt to limit the opportunity for habeas relief, it is required that a habeas petitioner obtain a “certificate of appealability,” often called a COA, before the petitioner can appeal a habeas denial. The standard is that a petitioner must make a “substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” Yes, it is difficult to know exactly what that means.