Does a Rule 59(e) motion, which asks a court to alter or amend a judgment, constitute a second or successive habeas application under Gonzalez v. Crosby, which is prohibited by Section 2244(b) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act?
This case asks the Supreme Court to decide whether and under what circumstances a timely Rule 59(e) motion should be recharacterized as a second or successive habeas petition under Gonzalez v. Crosby. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), a petitioner may not obtain habeas relief for a state court’s decision on a claim unless the decision clearly runs counter to the Constitution or is based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Section 2244(b) of AEDPA requires a court to dismiss a claim, if it presents a second or successive habeas corpus application that was presented in a prior application. Banister argues that a Rule 59(e) motion, which mandates that a motion to alter or amend a judgment be filed within 28 days of the judgment, does not constitute a “second or successive habeas application” under Section 2244(b) because it is part of a habeas applicant’s first habeas proceeding. Although Gonzalez held that a Rule 60(b) motion, which asks a court to relieve the movant from a final judgment, can constitute a second or successive habeas application, Banister contends that a Rule 59(e) motion does not similarly apply to Section 2244(b)’s restrictions because it is distinct from a Rule 60(b) motion. In response, Davis argues that so long as a Rule 59(e) motion is made after a final adjudicated judgment, it constitutes a second or successive habeas application subject to Section 2244(b)’s restrictions. Davis further asserts that Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) motions are similar enough to warrant the same treatment under Section 2244(b)’s restrictions. The outcome of this case will affect the timing for filing Rule 59(e) motions. This case will also have important implications for the limitations placed on federal habeas corpus review and on courts’ ability to correct or clarify previous rulings.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether and under what circumstances a timely Rule 59(e) motion should be recharacterized as a second or successive habeas petition under Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524 (2005).
Petitioner, Gregory Dean Banister, was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to thirty years in prison in a Texas state court. Banister v. Davis (District Court) at 1–2. Banister appealed his conviction, arguing that the State had erred in admitting a statement that he had made and evidence that he had suffered a cocaine crash. Id. at 2. The Texas Seventh Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. Id. Banister then appealed that court’s affirmation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, but was denied discretionary review. Id. Subsequently, Banister appealed to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, but this petition was denied as well. Id.
Banister then filed a timely application for a writ of habeas corpus in Texas state court. Id. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case for factual findings regarding potential deficiencies in trial counsel’s performance and whether these would have prejudiced Banister. Id. On remand, Banister’s trial counsel and appellate counsel, along with the County Attorney and Assistant County Attorney, filed affidavits toward Banister’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. The trial court ultimately found that counsel had not been ineffective, and that even if she had, Banister would not have been prejudiced by the deficiency, leading to the eventual denial of Banister’s petition. Id. at 3.
Following the denial of his state habeas petition, Banister filed a pro se petition for federal habeas corpus, alleging fifty-three grounds for relief. Id. Banister’s arguments included claims of trial court error, ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and illegal arrest. Banister v. Davis (Circuit Court) at 1‒2. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas (the “District Court”) denied relief on the merits. Banister v. Davis (District Court) at 49. Banister then filed a Rule 59(e) motion asserting the same claims that the District Court had denied. Banister v. Davis (Circuit Court) at 1. In a Rule 59(e) motion, a defendant may argue that the court must alter or amend its judgment as a result of, for example, errors of law or fact in the court’s decision. 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In his motion, Banister challenged the District Court’s reasons for denying his habeas petition. Banister v. Davis (Fifth Circuit) at 3. The District Court denied any pending motions, any other relief, and any certificate of appealability. Id. The District Court then ruled that Banister’s habeas petition contravened AEDPA, which established that a petitioner may not obtain habeas relief for a state court’s decision on a claim unless the decision clearly runs counter to the Constitution or is based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Banister v. Davis (District Court) at 3.
Banister then made a request for a certificate of appealability, challenging the District Court’s denial of his habeas petition. Banister v. Davis (Circuit Court) at 1–2. Under the habeas statute, a defendant may only challenge the ruling of a state court if the ruling “resulted in a decision that was contrary to . . . clearly established federal law,” or if the decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Banister argued that the District Court improperly rejected twelve issues that he raised in his habeas petition, including claims involving ineffective assistance of counsel, denial of appellate counsel, admission of an incriminating statement, denial of due process based on a juror’s stated reason for her verdict, and cumulative error. Banister v. Davis (Circuit Court) at 1–2. In order to prevail on a request for a certificate of appealability, a petitioner must show that he has been denied a constitutional right, and that reasonable jurists could disagree with the district court’s resolution of his constitutional claims. Banister v. Davis (Circuit Court) at 2. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (the “Fifth Circuit”) denied the certificate of appealability for lack of jurisdiction because it ruled that Banister’s 59(e) motion was a second, successive habeas petition. Id. at 4. AEDPA prohibits second or successive habeas petitions unless the petition asserts newly discovered evidence or a new rule of constitutional law, and Banister’s motion claimed neither. 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Banister subsequently appealed the Fifth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court.
THE APPLICABILITY OF RULE 59(E) MOTIONS UNDER SECTION 2244(B) OF AEDPA
Banister argues that a timely Rule 59(e) motion—which mandates that a motion to alter or amend a judgment be filed within 28 days of the judgment—is not subject to AEDPA’s restrictions in 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b) concerning “second or successive habeas applications” because the motion is part of a habeas applicant’s first habeas proceeding. Brief for Petitioner, Gregory Dean Banister at 15–18. Banister asserts that at common law, a court was allowed to amend its judgment in a habeas corpus case. Id. at 25. Additionally, Banister argues that there is no conflict between Rule 59(e) motions that ask a district court to correct its error immediately and AEDPA’s second-or-successive restrictions. Id. at 44. In support of this argument, Banister contends that courts have not applied 2244(b)’s restrictions to Rule 59(e) motions seeking reconsideration of a final judgment on the merits—instead, courts have embraced them as consistent with the spirit of habeas corpus statutes. Id. at 45. Banister also argues that Rule 59(e) motions are consistent with AEDPA because they advance its core purpose—avoiding piecemeal litigation—by suspending the finality of the judgment so that the district court can correct its mistake within a single final judgment. Id. at 46. Banister claims that a Rule 59(e) motion might be subject to 2244(b)’s second or successive application restrictions if the motion raises a new claim for habeas relief. Id. at 43–44. However, Banister asserts that a Rule 59(e) motion that merely alleges that the district court was mistaken in its analysis—like the motion in this case—does not constitute a new claim, and therefore, is not subject to 2244(b)’s restrictions. Id. at 43–44.
Lorie Davis counters that a Rule 59(e) motion is a second or successive habeas application subject to Section 2244(b)’s restrictions, if it asserts a habeas claim that was previously adjudicated in a prior final judgment. Brief for Respondent, Lorie Davis at 10. Davis argues that at common law, prisoners were only permitted to attack final convictions through means similar to Rule 59(e) motions if they were unlawfully confined. Id. at 33. Davis contends that prisoners that were confined pursuant to a lawful final judgment, like Banister, were not afforded the privilege that Banister seeks here. Id. Davis argues that the dividing line between an initial habeas application and a second or successive application is a final judgment: a court’s last decision that resolves all disputed issues. Id. at 16. Therefore, Davis asserts that a motion filed after a district court has rendered a final judgment amounts to a second or successive habeas application, regardless of whether the claim is new or an existing claim is being amended. Id. Davis also argues that there is an exception where a motion may raise a claim from a prior final judgment, but only in cases where the court did not make a decision on that particular claim. Id. at 19–20. However, Davis argues that Banister’s Rule 59(e) motion does not fall under this exception because it was filed after the district court entered its final judgment and it relied on habeas claims that were already adjudicated, thus constituting a second or successive habeas application. Id.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN RULE 59(E) MOTIONS AND RULE 60(B) MOTIONS
Banister argues that Rule 59(e) motions are distinct from Rule 60(b) motions, and therefore, cannot be similarly applied to Section 2244(b)’s restrictions. Brief for Petitioner at 27–28. Banister claims that Gonzalez v. Crosby held that a Rule 60(b) motion—which if filed within a reasonable time, relieves a party from a final judgment—is subject to Section 2244(b)’s restrictions and functions as a second application if the motion presents new claims for habeas relief. Id. at 28. Banister asserts that Rule 59(e) motions cannot similarly be subject to Section 2244(b)’s limitations, even after Gonzalez, because they lack a distinctive feature of Rule 60(b) motions: while Rule 59(e) motions must be filed promptly within 28 days of the habeas judgment, Rule 60(b) motions may be filed months, and even years after the judgment. Id. at 30. Because a habeas applicant may raise a Rule 60(b) motion after fully litigating a habeas case all the way through the appeals process, Banister contends that Rule 60(b) provides a unique avenue for relitigating the merits of a final habeas application. Id. Therefore, Banister argues that a Rule 60(b) motion that permits a habeas applicant to relitigate a habeas claim constitutes an impermissible second habeas application because it circumvents AEDPA’s purpose of discouraging piecemeal litigation. Id. at 30–31. By contrast, Banister claims that a Rule 59(e) motion is not used to relitigate a habeas case, but is a tool in an ongoing habeas case that suspends the final judgment for a fixed, short period of time, allowing the district court to remedy any mistakes before the case is reviewed by the court of appeals. Id. at 32.
Banister further argues that analogous motions at the appellate level demonstrate that motions under Rule 59(e) and Rule 60(b) are distinct and apply differently to Section 2244(b)’s restrictions. Id. at 33. For example, Banister contends that a Rule 60(b) motion is the equivalent of a motion to recall the mandate at the appellate level—which is typically treated like a second or successive habeas application. Id. In particular, Banister claims that motions to recall the mandate and Rule 60(b) motions share the same purpose: to set aside final adjudicated judgments. Id. at 34. Meanwhile, Banister asserts that a Rule 59(e) motion is the equivalent of a petition for rehearing that occurs before an appellate court even reviews a case—which would not be a second or successive habeas application. Id. Banister contends that both Rule 59(e) motions and petitions for rehearing must be filed within a short period of time following the court’s decision, and both suspend the final judgment while the previous court corrects its errors. Id. at 35.
In response, Davis asserts that Rule 59(e) motions warrant the same treatment under Section 2244(b)’s restrictions as Rule 60(b) motions because the two are similar in many respects. Brief for Respondent at 22. Davis contends that Rule 60(b) and Rule 59(e) motions function in the same way, if a Rule 60(b) motion is filed within 28 days of judgment: both of the motions suspend the finality of the initial judgment, rather than operate as a second habeas application. Id. at 23. Davis argues that courts treat Rule 60(b) motions filed within 28 days in the same way that they treat Rule 59(e) motions. Id. at 25. For example, Davis asserts that even before Gonzalez was decided, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure gave Rule 60(b) motions filed within 28 days the same effect to judgments, in terms of finality, as timely Rule 59(e) motions. Id. Because the Court in Gonzalez did not distinguish a Rule 60(b) motion filed within 28 days of judgment from one filed years later, Davis argues that the Gonzalez decision functions as a blanket rule and applies to all Rule 60(b) motions, regardless of what point in time they were filed. Id. Therefore, Davis contends that because Rule 60(b) motions filed within 28 days of judgment are subject to Section 2244(b)’s restrictions, Rule 59(e) motions must also be subject to them. Id.
Davis also argues that Rule 60(b) and Rule 59(e) motions cannot be equated to motions in the court of appeals because they are fundamentally different. Id. at 29. First, Davis contends that in comparing a Rule 60(b) motion to a motion to recall the mandate, Banister disregards their distinct functions. Id. at 29–30. Specifically, Davis asserts that a mandate—which is a judgment by an appellate court commanding a lower court to reconsider its decision—has no equivalent at the district court level. Id. at 30. Therefore, Banister contends that a Rule 60(b) motion, which is exercised at the district court level, cannot be compared to a mandate that only exists at the appellate level. Id. Second, Davis argues that Banister’s analogy between a Rule 59(e) motion and a motion for rehearing is flawed in that it ignores a key distinction: a motion for rehearing is filed before an appellate court’s final mandate, while a motion under Rule 59(e) is filed after the entry of a final judgment by the district court. Id. at 31. Additionally, Davis contends that because AEDPA explicitly exempted motions for rehearing, but not Rule 59(e) motions, from Section 2244(b)’s restrictions, this indicates that the statute intended to treat each motion differently. Id. at 31–32.
THE COMPETING INTERESTS OF SPEEDY AND COMPLETE HABEAS PROCEEDINGS
Law Professors with Expertise in Habeas Corpus and Civil Procedure (“Law Professors”), in support of Banister, assert that treating Rule 59(e) motions as successive habeas petitions is in fact at odds with the goal of AEDPA: to prevent petitioners from abusing the writ of habeas corpus. Brief of Amici Curiae Law Professors, in Support of Petitioner at 4. The Law Professors argue that allowing Rule 59(e) motions in situations like those of Banister would guard against “piecemeal litigation”—a tactic where a claimant continuously attacks a judgment through litigious means—that AEDPA was designed to prevent because those motions incentivize claimants to consolidate all of their claims into a single habeas proceeding. Id. at 10. Additionally, the Law Professors assert that a Rule 59(e) motion must be brought within a limited time after a judgment and tolls the time to file an appeal, making it hard for a claimant to co-opt a Rule 59(e) motion into a tool for piecemeal litigation. Id. at 10–11. The Law Professors also claim that restricting the use of Rule 59(e) motions in the way that Davis suggests would limit a petitioner’s opportunity to fully litigate his or her first habeas petition and greatly curtail the habeas right itself, a result inconsistent with Congress’ intent. Id. at 12–13.
However, in support of Davis, the State of Indiana et al. (“States”) argue that failing to treat Rule 59(e) motions as successive habeas petitions would allow petitioners to circumvent AEDPA’s limitations. Brief of Amici Curiae States, in Support of Respondent at 20–21. The States assert that AEDPA limits a petitioner to a single petition for a writ of habeas corpus in order to ensure the finality of criminal judgments, limit the abuse of habeas corpus, and speed up the appeals process. Id. at 7, 8, 13. The States emphasize that before AEDPA was enacted, habeas petitioners would often file many successive petitions—with some petitioners filing more than fifty. Id. at 7. The States assert that allowing multiple habeas petitions again would detract from the importance and finality of a criminal trial, rendering the trial essentially meaningless. Id. at 9–10. In addition, the United States, in support of Davis, argues that AEDPA was designed to streamline habeas litigation. Brief of Amicus Curiae United States, in Support of Respondent at 10. The United States asserts that Congress has a strong interest in ensuring that criminal convictions are final, and thus curtailed many rights associated with standard civil litigation in habeas cases. Id. at 21. Therefore, the United States argues that criminal defendants may not be entitled to every existing procedural remedy. Id.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR COURTS TO CORRECT THEIR OWN ERRORS
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), in support of Banister, argues that Rule 59(e) motions enable district courts to correct any errors in judgment and thereby avoid additional unnecessary litigation or unjust outcomes. Brief of Amicus Curiae NACDL, in Support of Petitioner at 6. The NACDL asserts that such a correction is a necessary part of a defendant’s right to a full opportunity for post-conviction relief. Id. For example, the NACDL argues that if Rule 59(e) motions are characterized as successive habeas claims, petitioners will be unable to ask courts to remedy such errors as a failure to consider recently decided precedent or an incorrect understanding of applicable rules. Id. at 7‒9. The NACDL also argues that Rule 59(e) motions afford courts a valuable opportunity to clarify previous rulings and respond more thoroughly to a petitioner’s claims. Id. at 12‒13. The NACDL asserts that these clarifications will guard against unnecessary appeals and remands, thereby relieving appellate courts of extra, frivolous work. Id. at 10, 12, 21. Further, the Law Professors also assert that the prohibition on successive habeas petitions was designed to prevent petitioners from repeatedly raising frivolous claims, but was never intended to limit petitioners’ opportunities to request that a trial court fix errors made during a petitioner’s first habeas proceeding. Brief of Law Professors at 4. The Law Professors argue that if a trial court does not have the opportunity to correct its errors, the court cannot form a final judgment subject to only one appeal. Id. at 14.
The United States responds that habeas petitioners may still rely on Rule 59(e) motions in certain circumstances to correct certain district court mistakes, so long as those motions do not reassert previously made claims or assert new ones. Brief of United States at 14. Specifically, the United States contends that Rule 59(e) motions may still be used to correct erroneous default judgments, mistaken applications of AEDPA’s one-year statute of limitations, and allow for courts to reconsider previous denials of certificates of appealability. Id. at 14–15. Furthermore, the United States claims that any potential benefits resulting from an opportunity to correct previous rulings would not be sufficiently substantial to warrant placing such a burden on district courts. Id. at 25‒26. The United States argues that Banister has failed to provide any example of a Rule 59(e) motion leading to habeas relief, while the NACDL has only provided three—the most recent occurring 15 years ago. Id. at 26. Meanwhile, contends the United States, Banister’s petition, which included 53 claims that were all rejected by the district court, is a perfect example of the substantial costs that Rule 59(e) motions would exact on the courts and officials tasked with addressing them. Id.
- Tony Mauro, How Goodwin Proctor Landed SCOTUS Argument for Pro Se Prisoner, Law.Com (June 25, 2019).
- Erika Williams, High Court to Clarify Appeals Process in Criminal Cases, Courthouse News Service (June 24, 2019).