CRS Annotated Constitution

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Habeas Corpus: Congressional and Judicial Control.—Although the writ of habeas corpus231 has a special status because its suspension is forbidden, except in narrow circumstances, by Article I. Sec. 9, cl. 2, nowhere in the Constitution is the power to issue the writ vested in the federal courts. Could it be that despite the suspension clause restriction Congress could suspend de facto the writ simply by declining to authorize its issuance? Is a statute needed to make the writ available or does the right to habeas corpus stem by implication from the suspension clause or from the grant of judicial power without need of a statute?232 Since Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in Ex parte Bollman,233 it has been generally accepted that “the power to award the writ by any of the courts of the United States, must be given by written law.”234 The suspension clause, Marshall explained, was an “injunction,” an “obligation” to provide “efficient means by which this great constitutional privilege should receive life and activity; for if the means be not in existence, the privilege itself would be lost, although no law for its suspension should be enacted.”235 And so it has been under[p.639]stood since,236 with a few judicial voices raised to suggest that what Congress could not do directly it could not do by omission,237 but inasmuch as statutory authority has always existed authorizing the federal courts to grant the relief they deemed necessary under habeas corpus the Court has never had to face the question.238

Supplement: [P. 639, add to text following n.238:]

In Felker v. Turpin,7 the Court again passed up the opportunity to delineate Congress’ permissive authority over habeas, finding that none of the provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act 8 raised questions of constitutional import.

Having determined that a statute was necessary before the federal courts had power to issue writs of habeas corpus, Chief Justice Marshall pointed to Sec. 14 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 as containing the necessary authority.239 As the Chief Justice read it, the authorization was limited to persons imprisoned under federal authority, and it was not until 1867, with two small exceptions,240 that legislation specifically empowered federal courts to inquire into the imprisonment of persons under state authority.241 Pursuant to this authorization, the Court expanded the use of the writ into a major instrument to reform procedural criminal law in federal and state jurisdictions.

Habeas Corpus: The Process of the Writ.—A petition for a writ of habeas corpus is filed by or on behalf of a person in “custody,” a concept which has been expanded so much that it is no longer restricted to actual physical detention in jail or prison.242 [p.640]Traditionally, the proceeding could not be used to secure an adjudication of a question which if determined in the petitioner’s favor would not result in his immediate release, since a discharge from custody was the only function of the writ,243 but this restraint too the Court has abandoned in an emphasis upon the statutory language directing the habeas court to “dispose of the matter as law and justice require.”244 Thus, even if a prisoner has been released from jail, the presence of collateral consequences flowing from his conviction gives the court jurisdiction to determine the constitutional validity of the conviction.245

Petitioners coming into federal habeas must first exhaust their state remedies, a limitation long settled in the case law and codified in 1948.246 It is only required that prisoners once present their claims in state court, either on appeal or collateral attack, and they need not return time and again to raise their issues before coming to federal court.247 While they were once required to petition the Supreme Court on certiorari to review directly their state convictions, prisoners have been relieved of this largely pointless exercise,248 although if the Supreme Court has taken and decided a case its judgment is conclusive in habeas on all issues of fact or law actually adjudicated.249


A federal prisoner in a Sec. 2255 proceeding will file his motion in the court which sentenced him;250 a state prisoner in a federal habeas action may file either in the district of the court in which he was sentenced or in the district in which he is in custody.251

Habeas corpus is not a substitute for an appeal.252 It is not a method to test ordinary procedural errors at trial or violations of state law but only to challenge alleged errors which if established would go to make the entire detention unlawful under federal law.253 If after appropriate proceedings, the habeas court finds that on the facts discovered and the law applied the prisoner is entitled to relief, it must grant it, ordinarily ordering the government to release the prisoner unless he is retried within a certain period.254


231 Reference to the “writ of habeas corpus” is to the “Great Writ,” habeas corpus ad subjiciendum, by which a court would inquire into the lawfulness of a detention of the petitioner. Ex parte Bollman, 4 Cr. (8 U.S.) 75, 95 (1807). For other uses, see Carbo v. United States, 364 U.S. 611 (1961); Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266 (1948). Technically, federal prisoners no longer utilize the writ of habeas corpus in seeking post–conviction relief, now the largest office of the writ, but proceed under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2255 , on a motion to vacate judgment. Intimating that if Sec. 2255 afforded prisoners a less adequate remedy than they would have under habeas corpus, it would be unconstitutional, the Court in United States v. Hayman, 342 U.S. 205 (1952), held the two remedies to be equivalent. Cf. Sanders v. United States, 373 U.S. 1. 14 (1963). The claims cognizable under one are cognizable under the other. Kaufman v. United States, 394 U.S. 217 (1969). Therefore, the term habeas corpus is used here to include the Sec. 2255 remedy. There is a plethora of writings about the writ. See, e.g., P. Bator, et al., Hart & Wechsler’s The Federal Courts and the Federal System (Westbury, N.Y.: 3d ed. 1988), Ch. XI, 1465–1597 (hereinafter Hart & Wechsler); Developments in the Law – Federal Habeas Corpus, 83 L. Rev.1038 (1970).
232 Professor Chafee contended that by the time of the Constitutional Convention the right to habeas corpus was so well established no affirmative authorization was needed. The Most Important Human Right in the Constitution, 32U.L. Rev.143,146 (1952). But compare Collins, Habeas Corpus for Convicts—Constitutional Right or Legislative Grace?, 40 Calif. L. Rev. 335, 344–345 (1952).
233 4 Cr. (8 U.S.) 75 (1807).
234 Id., 94. And see Ex parte Dorr, 3 How. (44 U.S.) 103 (1845).
235 Id., 95. Note that in quoting the clause, Marshall renders “shall not be suspended” as “should not be suspended.”
236 See Ex parte McCardle, 7 Wall. (74 U.S.) 506 (1869). Cf. Carbo v. United States, 364 U.S. 611, 614 (1961).
237 E.g., Eisentrager v. Forrestal, 174 F. 2d 961, 966 (D.C.Cir. 1949), revd. on other grounds sub nom., Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U.S. 763 (1950); and see Justice Black’s dissent, id., 791, 798: “Habeas corpus, as an instrument to protect against illegal imprisonment, is written into the Constitution. Its use by courts cannot in my judgment be constitutionally abridged by Executive or by Congress.” And in Jones v. Cunningham, 371 U.S. 236, 238 (1963), the Court said: “The habeas corpus jurisdictional statute implements the constitutional command that the writ of habeas corpus be made available.” (Emphasis supplied).
238 Cf. Ex Parte McCardle, 7 Wall. (74 U.S.) 506 (1869).
239 Ex parte Bollman, 4 Cr. (8 U.S.) 75, 94 (1807). See Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 409 (1963).
240 Act of March 2, 1833, Sec. 7, 4 Stat. 634 (federal officials imprisoned for enforcing federal law); Act of August 29, 1842, 5 Stat. 539 (foreign nationals detained by a State in violation of a treaty). See also Bankruptcy Act of April 4, 1800, Sec. 38, 2 Stat. 19, 32 (habeas corpus for imprisoned debtor discharged in bankruptcy), repealed by Act of December 19, 1803, 2 Stat. 248 .
241 Act of February 5, 1867, 14 Stat. 385 , conveyed power to federal courts “to grant writs of habeas corpus in all cases where any person may be restrained of his or her liberty in violation of the constitution, or of any treaty or law of the United States. . . .” On the law with respect to state prisoners prior to this statute, see Ex Parte Dorr, 3 How, (44 U.S.) 103 (1845); cf. Elkison v. Deliesseline, 8. Fed. Cas. 493 (No. 4366) (C.C.D.S.C. 1823) (Justice Johnson); Ex parte Cabrera, 4 Cas.964 (No.2278) (C.C.D.Pa. 1805) (Justice Washington).
242 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241 (c), 2254(a). “Custody” does not mean one must be confined; a person on parole or probation is in custody. Jones v. Cunningham, 371 U.S. 236 (1963). A person on bail or on his own recognizance is in custody, Justices of Boston Mun. Court v. Lydon, 466 U.S. 294, 300–301 (1984); Lefkowitz v. Newsome, 420 U.S. 283, 291 n. 8 (1975); Hensley v. Municipal Court 411 U.S. 345 (1973), and Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court, 410 U.S. 484 (1973), held that an inmate of an Alabama prison was sufficiently in custody as well of Kentucky authorities who had lodged a detainer with Alabama to obtain the prisoner upon his release.
243 McNally v. Hill, 293 U.S. 131 (1934); Parker v. Ellis, 362 U.S. 574 (1960).
244 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2243 . See Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U.S. 54 (1968). See also Maleng v. Cook, 490 U.S. 488 (1989).
245 Carafas v. LaVallee, 391 U.S. 234 (1968), overruling Parker v. Ellis, 362 U.S. 574 (1960). In Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U.S. 54 (1968), the Court overruled McNally v. Hill, 293 U.S. 131 (1934), and held that a prisoner may attack on habeas the second of two consecutive sentences while still serving the first. See also Walker v. Wainwright, 390 U.S. 335 (1968) (prisoner may attack the first of two consecutive sentences although the only effect of a successful attack would be immediate confinement on the second sentence). Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court, 410 U.S. 484 (1973), held that one sufficiently in custody of a State could use habeas to challenge the State’s failure to bring him to trial on pending charges.
246 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2254 (b). See Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 490–497 (1973), and id. 500, 512–524 (Justice Brennan dissenting); Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 515–521 (1982). If a prisoner submits a petition with both exhausted and unexhausted claims, the habeas court must dismiss the entire petition. Rose v. Lundy, supra, 518–519. Exhaustion first developed in cases brought by persons in state custody prior to any judgment. Ex parte Royall, 117 U.S. 241 (1886); Urquhart v. Brown, 205 U.S. 179 (1907).
247 Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 447–450 (1953); id., 502 (Justice Frankfurter concurring); Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 350 (1989).
248 Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 435 (1963), overruling Darr v. Burford, 339 U.S. 200 (1950).
249 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2244 (c). But an affirmance of a conviction by an equally divided Court is not an adjudication on the merits. Neil v. Biggers, 409 U.S. 188 (1972).
250 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2255 .
251 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2241 (d). Cf. Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court, 410 U.S. 484 (1973), overruling Ahrens v. Clark, 335 U.S. 188 (1948), and holding a petitioner may file in the district in which his custodian is located although the prisoner may be located elsewhere.
252 Glasgow v. Moyer, 225 U.S. 420, 428 (1912); Riddle v. Dyche, 262 U.S. 333, 335 (1923); Eagles v. United States ex rel. Samuels, 329 U.S. 304, 311 (1946). But compare Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 558–560 (1953) (Justice Frankfurter dissenting in part).
253 Estelle v. McGuire, 112Ct.475 (1991); Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 780 (1990); Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37, 41–42 (1984)
254 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2244 (b). See Whiteley v. Warden, 401 U.S. 560, 569 (1971); Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717, 729 (1961).

Supplement Footnotes

7 518 U.S. 651 (1996) .
8 Pub. L. No. 104–132, Sec. Sec. 101–08, 110 Stat. 1214, 1217–26, amending, inter alia, 28 U.S.C. Sec. Sec. 2244, 2253, 2254, 2255, and Fed. R. App. P. 22.
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