Saturday, May 24, 2008


The second major change in habeas corpus created by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) was a new limitation on the granting of relief. Under prior law, the state court's application of constitutional principles was reviewed de novo by the federal court which was not required to give any sort of deference to the state court's analysis. AEDPA provides, however, that a federal court may only grant relief for a state court's constitutional error if that error was an unreasonable application of federal constitutional law as decided by the United States Supreme Court.

This provision has had the effect of producing many federal court decisions that say, "We think the state court was wrong about the constitution, but not unreasonably wrong, so the conviction stands." Why state prisoners should not have the benefit of the United States Constitution is beyond me. I understand that many people think people who have been convicted of crimes are a different species from the law-abiding, but that is simply not the case.

If we do not speak out for those who seem not to deserve it, there will be no one to speak out for us.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


In the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, commonly known as "AEDPA", the United States Congress abruptly "overhauled" the remedy of habeas corpus available in federal court to persons with criminal convictions. Habeas corpus has traditionally been the remedy which provided a check on unjust or ineffective state criminal procedures. When habeas corpus relief is granted, the federal court can order a state court to release, retry, or re-sentence the petitioner. Because a habeas corpus petitioner must ordinarily raise his grounds for relief in state court before proceeding in federal court, habeas corpus serves as the remedy of last resort for many persons who are the victims of unjust conviction or sentence.

For many years before 1996, some law-and-order advocates had suggested that habeas corpus relief was too readily available and needed to be limited. These concerns had been overcome by the view that injustice needed a remedy, even if that remedy was sometimes long in coming or inconvenient to administer. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, however, the law-and-order tidal wave swept over these calmer heads, and AEDPA was passed. The AEDPA made two primary changes in the habeas corpus remedy which greatly limit the access of wrongfully convicted persons to justice.

The first of these changes, which will be discussed in this post, was the enactment of a statute of limitations. Prior to AEDPA, there had been no deadline for filing a habeas corpus action. Most successful actions were filed within a relatively short time after state proceedings were complete, but a small number of persons obtained relief years after their convictions and sentences. This was not generally true in death penalty cases; in those cases the pressure of execution dates usually resulted in prompt filings. However, to fix this non-problem, the AEDPA established a one-year statute of limitations. The year begins when the conviction and sentence become final in state court. It is tolled while post-conviction proceedings are pending in state court. Once those proceedings are over, the year starts running again from the point at which tolling began. This sounds rather straightforward, but in practice, it has been difficult to determine both when the conviction and sentence become final and when post-conviction proceedings are pending. Different states have different procedures and when they start and end is not always clear. This has resulted in a number of cases in which either the litigant or his counsel has miscounted the deadline by a few days, and petition is dismissed as a result of the error. The situation is particularly difficult for those petitioners who have counsel who make a mistake about the deadline. The courts have been extremely reluctant to make exceptions to the deadline in those cases, holding the client accountable for the lawyer's mistake. Ineffective assistance of counsel is not considered to be a legal excuse for failing to meet the habeas corpus statute of limitations.

Holding a client accountable for her lawyer's mistake about the statute of limitations makes sense in the context of the ordinary civil case. If my lawyer fails to file suit in time on my claim against the person who ran into my car, I can sue my lawyer for malpractice, and if my suit had merit, I will be entitled to a judgment against my lawyer for the damages I would have recovered in the lawsuit. In that situation, the defendants in the lawsuit get the benefit of the statute of limitations to which they are entitled, and I get the benefit of the damages to which I am entitled. Unfortunately, if my lawyer makes a mistake about my habeas corpus deadline, I can't sue my lawyer to get my conviction reversed. That can only happen in the habeas corpus action. So, as a result of my lawyer's negligence over which I have no control, I may find myself denied access to the courts. Since many people in this situation have court-appointed lawyers, they cannot even be faulted for picking the wrong lawyer. This result, while protecting the interest in finality that underlies the statute of limitations, is highly unjust to the petitioner.

What's the solution? One possibility would be to repeal the statute of limitations, but allow a defense of laches. If the state could show that the petitioner was or should have been aware of his ground for relief well before the petition was filed, and that the state's interests were harmed by the delay in bringing the action, dismissal would be appropriate. This is really the most just resolution of the problem, but it seems unlikely to win much support.

A less drastic solution would be to expand the doctrine of equitable tolling, now available only in very limited situations. If the delay is relatively short, little would be lost from the certainty of the statute of limitations to ease the requirements for equitable tolling to cover the situation where a lawyer makes a mistake. Most lawyers would prefer not to be in this situation, so it is unlikely that wholesale disregard of the statute would occur. Obviously, if the delay were several months, the burden would fall on the client to show that she diligently kept up with what her lawyer was supposed to be doing. If it were shown that the lawyer was recklessly negligent, for example that she failed to inform the client that there WAS a deadline, or did not know herself that such a deadline exists, disciplinary proceedings against the lawyer would serve to inform the bar that if they choose to accept such representation, they must inform themselves about the statutory requirements. The threat of such proceedings should be a sufficient deterrent to lawyers. Similarly, if a pro se litigant claimed total ignorance of the statute, barring his suit would be justified on the general principle that one is presumed to know the law. But an honest mistake about the limitation period which resulted in a filing which was not seriously late should not bar a pro se petition, either.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


The American criminal justice system--and maybe Americans in general--are addicted to imprisonment. Recent studies show that 1% of Americans are in prison, a very high percentage. Few other countries routinely imprison people for stealing and drug offenses as we do. This addiction, like all addictions, is expensive. And, like other addictions, it creates its own economy. Economically depressed areas want prisons for the jobs they generate, but that requires prisoners to fill the beds. Of course, people who spend significant amounts of time in prison are likely to return, particularly since our society is highly intolerant of people who have been convicted of crime, done their time, and been released. We seem to want to show those who break the law that we are "mad as hell and just won't take it any more!" But returning anger for wrongdoing only generates anger in the wrongdoers. There has to be another way.