Civil Rights Newsletter
The Procedural Default Rule Concerning Federal Habeas Corpus Claims
Generally, state prisoners and other individuals in “custody” are permitted to raise questions concerning the constitutionality of their confinement by filing a writ of habeas corpus, to determine whether their imprisonment is unlawful under the U.S. Constitution. In granting review of habeas corpus claims, courts frequently consider the following as prospective grounds for relief:
- Whether the conviction was based on illegally obtained evidence
- Whether the habeas petitioner was denied effective assistance of counsel
- Whether the jury was improperly selected and impaneled
If a habeas petitioner is successful in demonstrating a viable ground for relief, the petitioner will usually be entitled to habeas corpus relief for the constitutional errors.
The Procedural Default Rule
Pursuant to the procedural default rule, federal courts are typically barred from reviewing habeas corpus claims in cases where a defendant in a state criminal trial has failed to comply with state procedure. Effectively, the procedural default rule excludes individuals who failed to raise a claim in accordance with state procedure during the state criminal trial from state court consideration of the merits of their habeas claim, as well as from any subsequent federal habeas corpus review.
Independent and Adequate State Ground Doctrine
Perhaps the principal rationale for barring direct federal review of a claim under the procedural default rule is that federal courts must generally honor state court decisions that are based on “independent and adequate state ground.”
For example, a state court may refuse to address the merits of a habeas claim when a defendant failed to object to the admission of certain evidence on federal constitutional grounds in accordance with state procedure and within state time constraints. In this case, the state’s “independent and adequate” procedural rule bars direct federal review of the claim.
Exceptions to the Procedural Default Rule
In recognition of the importance of state procedural rules, the U.S. Supreme Court has barred federal habeas review of all federal claims that a state prisoner has defaulted in state court pursuant to an independent and adequate state procedural rule, unless the prisoner can demonstrate one of the following:
- Cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law, or
- That failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice.
In order to be exempt from the procedural default rule under the cause-for-default exception, the prisoner must ordinarily prove that “some objective factor” caused the defense counsel’s failure to observe a state procedural rule. On this reasoning, the Court has held that a federal habeas petitioner “cannot show cause for a procedural default by establishing that competent defense counsel’s failure to raise a substantive claim of error was inadvertent rather than deliberate.” Similarly, the Court has set a high barrier for establishing actual prejudice to overcome the limitations of the procedural default rule, making inquiries as demanding as whether an erroneous jury instruction “so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process.”
Fundamental Miscarriage of Justice – The Actual Innocence Exception
A federal court may also review a procedurally defaulted constitutional claim in a habeas petition if the habeas petitioner can demonstrate that a failure to entertain the claim will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. A habeas petitioner may demonstrate that failure to consider the claim will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice by showing actual innocence of the substantive offense.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether the actual innocence exception applies to noncapital (e.g., other than death penalty cases) sentencing errors in Dretke v. Haley. Specifically, the Court considered the eligibility for federal habeas review of a petitioner who had been convicted of felony theft as a habitual felony offender (which automatically subjected him to an enhanced penalty), even though evidence later proved that he did not qualify for the habitual offender enhancement. Because the petitioner had not raised a sufficiency of the evidence claim earlier, the state court rejected his claim on procedural grounds under the procedural default rule.
Subsequently, the federal court applied the actual innocence exception to excuse the petitioner’s procedural default, because the petitioner was actually innocent of the enhanced sentence. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately vacated the federal court’s application of the actual innocence exception to excuse the petitioner’s procedural default, holding that a federal court faced with allegations of actual innocence “must first address all nondefaulted claims for comparable relief and other grounds for cause to excuse the procedural default.” The Court reasoned that “victims of fundamental miscarriage of justice will [generally] meet the cause-and-prejudice [exception]” to get the relief they seek, in which case courts can avoid the “many threshold legal questions often accompanying actual innocence claims.”
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