Since the time of the Magna Carta, prisoners have been able to challenge the legality of their incarceration by petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus, long known as the Great Writ. We inherited “this powerful tool for . . . protect[ing] . . . individuals’ constitutional and statutory rights . . . from Great Britain,” which formalized it in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton argued that the Constitution should provide for the writ “in the most ample manner” because it served as a bulwark against “arbitrary methods of prosecuting pretended offenses [and] arbitrary punishments upon arbitrary convictions.”
The drafters of the Constitution imbedded it in Article I before adopting the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court has attested to the writ’s significance on many occasions. At different times, the Court has declared that habeas corpus is intended “to liberate an individual from unlawful imprisonment,” a procedure for “securing to the petitioners their constitutional rights,” and “the best and only sufficient defense of personal freedom,” which if withdrawn, “risk[s] injury to an important interest in human liberty.” Most recently, the Court described the writ of habeas corpus as a “vital instrument” to securing “freedom from unlawful restraint,” such freedom being “a fundamental precept of liberty”.
And all of that would mean absolutely nothing if a bill currently in the state legislature were to pass. A bill, that in my view, comes dangerously close to an actual suspension of the writ in certain circumstances.
That such a bill is being considered by lawmakers is a monumental slap in the face to the very principles upon which the justice system in this country was built. The bill is born of a misbegotten belief that the courts in Connecticut are “overwhelmed” with “needless” and “repetitive” habeas petitions, whereby inmates [read: criminals/scum of the earth/them, not us] “abuse” the system. Putting aside the fact that the current pending habeas petitions represent a mere 10% or so of the incarcerated population [and an even smaller percentage of total convictions in the state], the idea that a State would be willing to eviscerate so fundamental a protection without the slightest trepidation is repugnant.
Making this proposal even more jarring is the granting of The Great Writ yesterday in a case where the two petitioners were found by the court to be actually innocent after 16 years in jail [make sure you read the decision by Judge Fuger]. If this bill were to pass, it would convert the sharp scythe that the Great Writ is meant to be into a limp sword of cardboard used in middle school productions.
Let us count the ways in which this bill sticks a big middle finger right through The Great Writ and the ways in which this will only generate more litigation and require more expenditure:
Section 1. (NEW) (Effective October 1, 2010) The provisions of sections 2 to 6, inclusive, of this act apply to any application for a writ of habeas corpus filed on or after the effective date of this section that is brought by or on behalf of a person who (1) claims to be illegally confined or deprived of his or her liberty as a result of a conviction of an offense, as defined in section 53a-24 of the general statutes, or a motor vehicle violation for which a term of imprisonment may be imposed, and is challenging the validity of the conviction or sentence imposed, [...]
Yes, this bill would be effective immediately and apply to all new habeas petitions and apply retroactively. So if an inmate decides to file a petition tomorrow for a conviction obtained in 2004, the SOL would apply. Is the concept of notice so novel to the legislature that they cannot grasp the implications of this? Increase litigation 10-fold.
Sec. 2. (NEW) (Effective October 1, 2010) Except for the remedies of appeal, petition for a new trial, sentence review in accordance with section 51-196 of the general statutes or sentence reduction or discharge in accordance with section 53a-39 of the general statutes and the authority of the sentencing court at common law to correct an illegal sentence, the remedy of habeas corpus as provided in sections 1 to 6, inclusive, of this act shall be used exclusively in lieu of all common law, statutory or other remedies available prior to the effective date of this section for challenging the validity of a conviction, sentence or commitment.
This is a frightening provision. Perhaps unintentionally so. What it does, immediately, is eliminate the Writ of Error Coram Nobis. WECN (I made up that abbreviation; you are free to use it) is an extraordinary remedy to be applied only when no other avenue is available. Combine that with the forthcoming section on the statute of limitations for the Great Writ and the effect is that for some people, there will be absolutely no avenue to seek redress for a Constitutional violation.
In addition to that, this section also seeks to eliminate the statutory Motion for New Trial (not to be confused with the Petition for New Trial), which must be filed shortly after a verdict of guilt. This gets a +5 on the “more litigation” scale.
Sec. 3. (NEW) (Effective October 1, 2010) (a) No application for a writ of habeas corpus challenging the validity of a conviction, sentence or commitment shall be brought except within: (1) Three years after the date that the sentence was imposed or the commitment ordered, or (2) one year after the date of the final order of the last appellate court in this state to exercise jurisdiction on a direct appeal or the denial of a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States or issuance of said court’s final order following the granting of such petition; whichever is later.
This is the big kahuna. The SOL is introduced into state habeas corpus petitions, where none existed before. But note the end of that provision: the SOL is one year from the denial or granting of cert by SCOTUS. So if the United States Supreme Court grants an inmate’s petition for certiorari, the SOL still continues to run! Bueller?! Bueller!???!? What. The. Fuck.?
(b) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) of this section, a court may hear a claim if the applicant establishes due diligence in presenting the claim and:
(1) The applicant establishes that a physical disability or mental disease precluded a timely assertion of the claim;
(2) The applicant alleges the existence of newly discovered evidence, including scientific evidence, that could not have been discovered by the exercise of due diligence by the applicant or the applicant’s counsel prior to the expiration of the three-year period for the filing of an application for a writ of habeas corpus, is not for impeachment purposes and would establish that the applicant is actually innocent of the offense or offenses for which the applicant was convicted or committed;
(3) The applicant’s claim for relief is based upon a new interpretation of federal or state constitutional law by either the Supreme Court of the United States or the Supreme Court of this state that is retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review; or
(4) The applicant establishes that the evidence on which the claim is based was in the exclusive possession of the state and not otherwise available to the applicant, was not disclosed prior to the expiration of the time periods set forth in subsection (a) of this section, is favorable to the applicant and is material to the applicant’s guilt or punishment.
Due Diligence. I don’t know what that means. Do you? cough*morelitigation*cough. Subsection (2) is so mind-numbingly stupid that I can only fairly criticize the “not for impeachment purposes” clause. The legislature is purporting to tell a court of equity what types of evidence it may consider? The litigation meter just went to 100.
Subsection (3) is also evidence that this bill was drafted by a prosecutor non-lawyer. The United States Supreme Court has, on several occasions, applied new interpretations of criminal statutes retroactively [I once wrote a brief on that damn issue].
On the more litigation front: Who decides all this anyway? Does a Court? If a court decides this, is it prior to the filing of the Great Writ, or after? Or is it in purgatory? Is counsel appointed? Is counsel appointed provisionally? Can this be appealed? If it is appealed, is counsel provided? There is a right to counsel, after all. Oh yay!
Suspension of the Writ
Read the following section and tell me how this is not a suspension* of the Great Writ for some:
Sec. 4. (NEW) (Effective October 1, 2010) (a) A claim for relief raised in an application for a writ of habeas corpus, or in an amended application, shall be barred and no court may decide the claim if:
(1) It was raised and decided, either on the merits or on procedural grounds, in any earlier proceeding; or
(2) It could have been raised but was not raised:
(A) At any time prior to the imposition of sentence in the proceeding that resulted in the applicant’s conviction or commitment;
(B) In a direct appeal from the proceeding that resulted in the applicant’s sentence or commitment; or
(C) In a previous habeas corpus proceeding challenging the same sentence or commitment.
I’ll give you an example of the idiocy of 4(1): an inmate files a sentence modification and his grounds for the modification are that his conviction is illegal and thus he should have no sentence at all. A trial court, rightly, says, “sir, you are crazy, go file a habeas”.
Mr. Not-So-Smart-Inmate goes to habeas court where it is barred because it was decided on procedural grounds in a prior proceeding. This is so flatly contrary to mountains of state and federal Constitutional law that I have half a mind to go to the public hearing on Monday and just scream into the microphone, following the advice of Anouilh.
You want even more litigation? I’ll give you more litigation:
(b) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) of this section, a court may hear a claim if:
(1) The applicant demonstrates good cause for his or her failure to raise the specific claim in the earlier proceedings and sets forth sufficient facts to demonstrate a reasonable likelihood that, if the facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the applicant, the claim or claims will succeed on the merits. For purposes of this subdivision, an applicant demonstrates good cause by identifying an objective factor external to the defense that impeded his or her ability to raise the specific claim during the earlier proceedings, or by proving the ineffectiveness of counsel in failing to raise the specific claim prior to the imposition of sentence in the proceeding that resulted in the applicant’s conviction or commitment, or on direct appeal;
A) Who is going to decide, prior to deciding the merits of the claim, whether there is a “reasonable likelihood that the claim will succeed on the merits”? A judge, that’s who. So…why…I mean…umm…what?
B) Is counsel going to be appointed? Or is this going to be pro-se? And what if a judge decides that the claim can proceed because there’s a reasonable likelihood that it will succeed and then denies it?
C) Demonstration of good cause that there was an objective factor: who decides this? A judge – repeat A and B above. Make sure you lather well.
D) Ineffective assistance of counsel is good cause to proceed, but who decide – oh what the hell, I can’t play this game anymore.
Sec. 5. (NEW) (Effective October 1, 2010)
(b) The ineffectiveness of any counsel who represented the applicant in an earlier habeas corpus proceeding shall not be a ground for relief in a second or subsequent application.
100 magic brownies to whoever points out how unconstitutional and stupid this is in the funniest way possible. To those that may not understand it, I provide a big hint: Right to Counsel = Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel. Quod Erat Demonstrandum .
This post has gone on long enough so I won’t reproduce Section 6, but I will tell you that it is merely another “gatekeeping” provision. That makes it, what, the 3rd? We screen the screen that screens the claim, deciding whether to get to a full hearing. Each stage is appealable (and believe me, it will be appealed). Wouldn’t it be simpler to just have the damn hearing?
The bottom line
Yes, there’s a bottom line. And that is this: this bill “streamlines” habeas corpus procedures in the State of Connecticut in the same way Mount Everest placed atop the Space Shuttle would streamline it. Which is to say, not at all.
I wouldn’t be surprised, if this bill passed, that the State would have to provide greater resources to the State’s Attorney’s office and the Public Defender’s office to litigate every step of the process. And at the end of that litigation, most of this garbage bill would be struck down as unconstitutional anyway.
Many of the “provisions” of this bill are already law: procedural default, cause and prejudice, motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment. Moving these restrictions from their proper place – during the pendency of the proceedings – to a newly created space prior to the institution of proceedings is nothing but another way to increase litigation and create backlogs and nightmares where none exist.
My version of a “habeas reform” bill
What? You thought I didn’t have an idea of my own? I thought you knew me better than that.
Section 1. The right of access to the Great Writ shall be inviolate.
Section 2. All State’s Attorneys charged with defending against petitions for writs of habeas corpus are required to file Motions to Dismiss and Motions for Summary Judgment in all applicable cases.
Section 3. All Special Public Defenders, appointed to represent inmates in petitions for writ of habeas corpus, shall be paid a flat fee per case, regardless of whether a hearing is conducted on the merits of the petition or not.
Section 4. A second or subsequent petition challenging the same conviction that was challenged in a prior habeas petition adjudicated on the merits shall be automatically subject to a motion to dismiss. If the petitioner, through counsel, can establish that there exists good cause for raising new claims challenging the same conviction, then the petition shall be permitted to proceed. Otherwise, it shall be dismissed.
[The opening paragraphs of this post have been lifted, word for word, from this law review article. The principles are articulated so well there, that it would be a shame for me to try and reproduce them in my meandering style.]
*Yes, I realize I’m being a bit dramatic here. But.