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Saturday, October 01, 2011

Why I (Still) Teach About Federal Habeas

This is Giovanna Shay, Associate Professor of Law at Western New England University School of Law, signing in as a guest blogger for the month of October.  As the first Monday in October approaches, I find myself once again sorting through the many habeas-related cases on the U.S. Supreme Court docket.  When you're trying to keep up with them, it doesn't really seem like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) has reduced habeas litigation, at least in the SCOTUS.  In the first few weeks alone, the Court will hear Maples v. Thomas, Howes v. Fields, and Greene v. Fisher.  (There's also Martinez v. Ryan, raising a claim of federal constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction).  I tell my students in Postconviction Rights that federal habeas for state prisoners is  "a whole lotta law for not much relief."  It's gotten to a point that Professors Nancy King and Joseph Hoffman have suggested scrapping the enterprise, except for claims involving innocence, retroactivity, or a death sentence.  As I sort through the opinions, I sometimes ask myself, why do I teach this stuff?  Well, there are several reasons: 

1.  Every once in awhile, against all odds, a federal habeas case will save someone's life or end a practice that is just plain wrong.  Sometimes, a habeas opinion will provide some good Supreme Court teaching.  When that happens, reading about it is a thrill(Think Porter v. McCollum or Wiggins v. Smith on the value of mitigation evidence in capital cases, or even consider the opinion in Holland v. Florida to illustrate the importance of lawyer-client communication and attorney diligence).

2.  A federal habeas case provides a "window" onto the entire procedural history of a criminal case--trial, direct appeal, state postconviction, and, finally, federal habeas.  I use the Carey v. Musladin case for this purpose, asking students to track how the issues changed in the California courts, 9th Circuit, and U.S. Supreme Court.

3.  Federal habeas raises fascinating issues about federalism and comity.  It's interesting to discuss the rationales of the opinions Wainwright v. Sykes or Coleman v. Thompson, and then ask students to compare the vision of state court proceedings in some of those opinions with their own observations of the quality of justice in some local criminal courts.

4.  It's good for future state public defenders to study federal habeas.  It gives them newfound appreciation for the importance of their role in safeguarding defendants' rights and raising potential federal constitutional issues.

5.  It's good for future state prosecutors to see some examples of how not to behave.  Lesson #1: Don't Suppress Brady.

6.  It's challenging.  Reading federal habeas opinions is a real analytical work-out for the students, one that gives them a sense of mastery and accomplishment.  Once you're following the conversation, the question in Greene v. Fisher. is fascinating.

7.  And, oh yeah, in the last decade, we have seen the federal government institute some new detention practices, in situations that made once-arcane rules of habeas jurisdiction suddenly very relevant.  Federal habeas: learn it or lose it!

I'm glad to be here with you in the month of October.  Now, if Chief Justice Roberts is calling balls and strikes, who is throwing out the first pitch?

Posted by GiovannaShay on October 1, 2011 at 05:37 PM | Permalink


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