• Last updated on November 11, 2022

Right of prisoners to have the constitutionality of their imprisonment reviewed by a federal court.

Habeas corpus, literally “you have the body,” originated as a common-law writ in England. In the United States, the writ of habeas corpus was guaranteed in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. Federal statutes enacted in 1789 and 1867 empowered federal courts to hear habeas cases for federal and state prisoners.

Habeas corpus, often called a collateral attack, is a limited right. Its basic purpose is to ensure that a person’s constitutional right to liberty is not being violated. It is available only to people who are in custody and who have already exhausted the direct appeals of their conviction. It is technically a civil action rather than criminal, and the prisoner’s actual guilt or innocence is not the issue. Instead, the prisoner must prove that something about his or her incarceration violates the Constitution. Most frequently, the prisoner will claim constitutional errors occurred during the original trial (for example, that the jury was improperly chosen) or that there is something unconstitutional about the sentence given (for example, that it is cruel and unusual punishment). Prisoners who succeed with their habeas claims are not typically set free but instead are given a new trial or new sentence. Significantly, even if the prisoner was convicted and incarcerated by a state, habeas corpus proceedings may be brought in federal court.

The Warren Court

Although the right to habeas corpus is as old as the Constitution, the rules relating to the scope of habeas review were primarily set by the Supreme Court during the second half of the twentieth century. During the years when Earl WarrenWarren, Earl was chief justice of the Supreme Court (1953-1969), the Court took an expansive view of the right. A majority of the justices believed that this was necessary because of the extreme importance of the right to liberty. Broad reviews of trial courts’ decisions would protect the right to liberty and ensure that correct decisions were reached.

An example of the Warren Court’s approach to habeas is the case of Fay v. Noia[case]Fay v. Noia[Fay v. Noia] (1963), in which the Court upheld Noia’s habeas challenge of his felony murder conviction. Noia’s conviction had been based entirely on a confession that had been coerced in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., writing for the majority, stated that habeas was the “ultimate remedy” in the struggle for personal liberty.

Not all jurists and legal scholars agreed with the Warren Court’s approach to habeas law. In fact, during the tenures of Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and William H. Rehnquist, a majority of the justices adopted a considerably narrower view of the scope of habeas corpus relief. The primary reason was their concern over the number of habeas cases federal courts were compelled to hear. In addition to burdening the courts, this interfered with the finality of decisions, encouraged frivolous claims, and contributed to the drawing out of legal proceedings. In death penalty cases, for example, habeas challenges could delay executions for decades. Furthermore, these justices believed, federalism required that federal courts give great respect to state courts’ decisions.

A Changing View

One of the most significant post-Warren habeas decisions was Stone v. Powell[case]Stone v. Powell[Stone v. Powell] (1976). Defendants in two different cases challenged their convictions on the grounds that the trial courts had admitted evidence that was the product of unconstitutional searches and seizures. The Court held that prisoners cannot raise Fourth Amendment issues in habeas cases if they had a fair chance to litigate those issues in the state courts.

The Court further limited habeas rights in Teague v. Lane[case]Teague v. Lane[Teague v. Lane] (1989), a case that dealt with the retroactivity of court decisions. If a federal court announces a new rule of criminal procedure after a prisoner’s conviction is final, that prisoner may not take advantage of that rule in subsequent habeas claims. The reason given for this decision was the interest in preserving the finality of decisions; without such a rule, it was argued, established convictions would be perpetually subject to review as the law evolved.

In 1993 in Herrera v. Collins, the Court again endorsed a restricted view of the right to habeas corpus. Herrera had been sentenced to death for murdering a police officer. Several years after he had exhausted his direct appeals and after he had filed several unsuccessful habeas petitions, he brought a new habeas claim in federal court, claiming that new evidence had appeared that would prove his actual innocence of the crime. The Court held that he was not entitled to habeas relief based solely on a claim of actual innocence; because he could point out no procedural errors at his original trial, his death sentence was affirmed.

By the end of the twentieth century, the Court’s conservative approach to habeas corpus was well established. This approach was supported by Congress, which in 1996 passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Among other things, the act required that habeas claims be brought no more than one year after a claimant had exhausted his or her state appeals and generally limited prisoners to a single habeas petition.

Further Reading
  • Del Carmen, Rolando V. Criminal Procedure: Law and Practice. 6th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004.
  • Del Carmen, Rolando V., Mary Parker, and Frances P. Reddington. Briefs of Leading Cases in Juvenile Justice. Cincinnati: Anderson, 1998.
  • Emanuel, S. L. Criminal Procedure. Aspen, Colo.: Aspen Publishing, 2003.
  • Samaha, Joel. Criminal Procedure. 6th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2005.
  • Stahlkopf, Deborah. “A Dark Day for Habeas Corpus: Successive Petitions under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.” Arizona Law Review 40 (1998): 1115.
  • Wood, Horace G. A Treatise on the Legal Remedies of Mandamus and Prohibition: Habeas Corpus, Certiorari, and Quo Warranto. 3d ed. Revised and enlarged by Charles F. Bridge. Littleton, Colo.: Fred B. Rothman, 1997.

Constitution, U.S.

Due process, substantive

Fay v. Noia

Martial law

Stone v. Powell

Warren, Earl

Categories: History Content