Reconceptualizing Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners: How Should AEDPA's Standard of Review Operate after Williams v. Taylor?

48 Pages Posted: 19 May 2005 Last revised: 19 Jul 2014

See all articles by Adam Steinman

Adam Steinman

University of Alabama - School of Law

Date Written: December 1, 2001


This Article aims to expand the debate over the proper standard of review that applies in state prisoner habeas corpus actions in federal court. To date, this debate has centered on whether federal habeas courts should defer to the state court's resolution of federal legal questions, or whether federal habeas courts should assess and apply federal law de novo. However, in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000), the Supreme Court held that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) imposes a deferential standard of review that precludes a federal habeas court from granting relief based simply on its independent assessment of federal law. Under AEDPA, federal habeas courts must defer to a state court's rejection of a petitioner's constitutional claim unless the state court's decision is either contrary to or involves an unreasonable application of established federal law. The key question, therefore, is no longer whether deference is required, but how that deferential standard should operate.

A threshold question in applying the new standard is whether it targets the legal reasoning underlying the state court's ruling, or whether it looks solely at the result reached by the state court regardless of how, analytically, the state court came to that result. The thesis of this article is that AEDPA's deferential standard should scrutinize the legal opinion issued by the state court, and therefore, AEDPA should bar relief only where that opinion correctly identifies the governing rule of federal law and reasonably applies that rule. Although this approach would not guarantee independent relitigation of federal claims on federal habeas, it would ensure that petitioners receive one analytically sound adjudication of their federal claims It would also create a tangible incentive for state courts to adjudicate federal law claims thoroughly and explicitly, which in the long run could enhance overall enforcement of federal rights.

Keywords: AEDPA, 2254(d)(1), Habeas Corpus, Habeas, Standard of Review, Deference, Deferential, Federalism

JEL Classification: K40

Suggested Citation

Steinman, Adam, Reconceptualizing Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners: How Should AEDPA's Standard of Review Operate after Williams v. Taylor? (December 1, 2001). Wisconsin Law Review, Vol. 2001, p. 1493, 2001, Available at SSRN:

Adam Steinman (Contact Author)

University of Alabama - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

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