When Congress in the mid-1990s began considering reforms of federal post-conviction review, lawmakers faced an ongoing dilemma about the scope of habeas corpus law. That is, should habeas broadly protect constitutional rights of state prisoners through independent federal review, or should habeas be a narrow and extraordinary remedy that does not interfere with comity, finality, and federalism? Congress adopted the latter approach in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), a response to the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and one that quickly served as a vehicle for revamping habeas law and, more specifically, for attempting to ensure swifter, more certain imposition of capital punishment.
Particularly during the Warren Court years, habeas corpus was viewed as a means for explicating constitutional norms and broadly protecting individual rights. Critics of this trend argued that the existing system had become too slow, burdensome, and destructive of important state interests in defining and enforcing the criminal law. A variety of reform proposals died in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. After Republicans gained working control of Congress in 1995, however, and after the Burger and Rehnquist Courts consistently articulated a more restrictive approach to federal habeas review, Congress used the AEDPA to address its disenchantment with habeas jurisprudence. Although the AEDPA applies to capital and noncapital cases, the legislative debate focused on the effect the reforms would have on death penalty cases.
Congressional supporters of the legislation argued that the existing habeas system allowed death row inmates to abuse the process by repeatedly challenging their convictions and death sentences, indefinitely delaying execution of their sentences. Supporters further claimed that, in reviewing state cases, federal courts were improperly substituting their own judgment for that of the state courts. This system was, therefore, bad for federal-state comity, compromised the value of finality, and demeaned federalism, the healthy balance of authority between the state and federal governments. The AEDPA thus requires federal deference in cases involving state prisoners. In those cases, federal courts may grant the writ only if the state court decision involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent, or an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court. Beginning with (Terry) Williams v. Taylor (2000), a capital case, the Supreme Court has interpreted these provisions to mean that the state court decision must be objectively unreasonable, not merely incorrect. In addition, the AEDPA provides a presumption of correctness for state court fact-findings, restricts a prisoner’s ability to obtain a federal evidentiary hearing, and places severe limits on successive habeas petitions. Finally, the law provides ‘‘fast-track’’ procedures for a limited category of capital cases from qualifying jurisdictions.
The AEDPA was, and remains, controversial. Critics say it improperly hinders the federal judiciary’s role as arbiter of federal rights, leaving many constitutional violations unchecked. Still, however, supporters contend the reforms have proven helpful in giving States latitude to administer their penal laws—particularly their systems of capital punishment— with minimal federal judicial interference.
J. RICHARD BROUGHTON
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Habeas Corpus: Modern History