Challenging the Habeas Process Rather than the Result
112 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2011 Last revised: 21 Mar 2012
Date Written: November 8, 2011
Habeas scholarship has repeatedly assessed whether the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (AEDPA’s) limitations on federal habeas relief were as severe in practice as they appeared to be on paper. By analyzing recent doctrinal shifts — particularly focusing on two decisions from this Term — and substantial new empirical data, this Article acknowledges that AEDPA’s bite has reached substantial proportions, in many ways exceeding the initial concerns and hype surrounding the legislation. More importantly, after acknowledging that federal habeas relief from state court convictions has become “microscopically” rare, this Article considers what the rarity of relief ought to mean as a prescriptive matter for federal oversight of state convictions.
Contrary to the dramatic proposals of scholars who have recently suggested that the general futility of habeas litigation dictates that individual, case-by-case habeas review should be abolished, this Article seeks to regain intellectual and practical traction for the longstanding view that federal courts play an important role in overseeing and enforcing the Constitution. To be sure, the path to success for state prisoners on federal habeas review has become infinitesimally narrow, but the recent scholarly interest in abandoning federal review of state convictions in nearly all circumstances other than capital cases misses the mark. This Article suggests that the paucity of success by habeas petitioners does not naturally or necessarily justify the abandonment of federal oversight, as the scholarly trend suggests. Instead, scholars and courts should recognize the critical role federal courts play in ensuring that the state court process is fundamentally fair. Indeed, if the primary responsibility for substantive review now rests with the state courts, the need for federal oversight of the procedures is heightened. To this end, this Article makes the case for focusing more attention on the need for challenges of process rather than result and discusses novel methods, both under § 1983 and § 2254, for bringing such litigation. By focusing federal review on the adequacy of the state process, the deterrence model of federal oversight retains a position of importance and distinction, and principles of comity, federalism, and fair process are well protected.
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