Attack a Criminal Conviction by Prisoner for Violation of Rights

The common-law writ of habeas corpus allowed a prisoner to attack a criminal judgement on very narrow grounds lack of jurisdiction. But under the Habeas Corpus Act, a state prisoner might attack a criminal conviction by alleging a violation of any right guaranteed by federal law. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that expanded the procedural rights guaranteed to all criminal defendants by the federal Constitution. As a result, state prisoners began to resort frequently to the federal Habeas Corpus Act. This posed significant problems to the administration of the criminal justice system and to the relationship between the federal and state governments. As the Supreme Court of Tennessee explained in House v. State, House v. State, 911 S.W.2d 705 (Tenn. 1995). As an indication of the breadth of the change worked by the Supreme Court during these years, consider the following excerpt from Professor G. Kenneth Reiblich's Summary of the October 1964 Term, written as a preface to Volume 85 of the Supreme Court Reporter (85 S. Ct., introductory pages 137-38): The Court: (1) for the first time ruled clearly that the right of confrontation protected by the Sixth Amendment ... is incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment's due process protections against state action, ... (2) ruled that the Fifth Amendment's self-incrimination privilege, ... part of the Fourteenth Amendment's protection against state action, carries with it the same standards as are applicable in the federal courts ...; (3) condemned Connecticut's anti- contraceptive statute as violative of the right to marital privacy, in support of which ruling no less than six amendments were cited by the several opinions ...; (4) held that televising of a notorious criminal trial violates due process of law ... . Despite Mr. Justice Harlan's protests to the contrary (at times joined by Justices Clark, Stewart and White), the Court has continued its process of incorporation of Bill of Rights guarantees into Fourteenth Amendment due process to where the list now includes: (1) the basic freedoms of the First Amendment (and, under Griswold v. Connecticut ..., unenumerated basic liberties); (2) the Fourth Amendment's unreasonable search and seizure provisions with its accompanying exclusion of illegally seized evidence; (3) the Fifth Amendment's self-incrimination and eminent domain protections (but not including yet the indictment by grand jury or double-jeopardy provisions); (4) the Sixth Amendment's rights to speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury, notice, confrontation, and assistance of counsel; (5) the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment (and possibly, although not clearly, the right to bail); and (6) again under Griswold, supra, radiations from the Ninth Amendment. At that time i.e., in the 1950s and early 1960s, the only means of ... collateral attack or post-conviction review in Tennessee, as well as most other states, was habeas corpus, which was and still is ... narrow in scope, and which allows for relief only when the judgment is facially void or the petitioner's term of imprisonment has expired. ... State court defendants were left without redress for alleged constitutional errors in many cases. ... Consequently, state prisoners sought relief in federal courts via the federal habeas corpus procedure. The expansion of federal constitutional protection and federal habeas corpus review, combined with the restrictive scope of state habeas corpus and other state collateral procedures, resulted in two problems. First, federal courts were called upon to review constitutional claims not considered by state courts. This called into question the finality of state criminal judgments, and in turn, caused tension between the state and the federal judiciaries. Second, federal courts were inundated and overburdened by the influx of habeas petitions filed by state prisoners. To alleviate those problems, in Case v. Nebraska, 381 U.S. 336, 85 S. Ct. 1486, 14 L. Ed. 2d 422 (1965), the Supreme Court recommended that the states enact statutory post- conviction procedures to supplement habeas corpus remedies and thereby provide state prisoners an opportunity to litigate allegations of federal constitutional errors in state courts. House, 911 S.W.2d at 708-09 (citations omitted). The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Case v. Nebraska to resolve the issue of whether the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "requires that the States afford state prisoners some adequate corrective process for the hearing and determination of claims of violation of federal constitutional guarantees." When the court granted certiorari in Case (i.e., in early 1965 ), a handful of states had enacted post-conviction relief statutes, and another handful (including Alaska) had adopted post-conviction relief procedures by court rule. In addition, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws had promulgated a Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act. But the great majority of states lacked a system of post-conviction relief designed for the purpose of vindicating a prisoner's constitutional rights. Doubtless, when the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Case, the Court anticipated that it might formulate minimum standards for post-conviction relief procedures in the states. But while the Supreme Court was considering Case, Nebraska enacted a post-conviction relief procedure, thus mooting the issue. Despite the mootness of the controversy, two members of the Court (Justices Clark and Brennan) wrote concurring opinions in which they suggested that, because of due process concerns, all states should enact some form of post-conviction relief. There was significant response to this call. In 1967, the American Bar Association promulgated its Standards Relating to Post-Conviction Relief. (See footnote 30, supra.) In addition, many state legislatures enacted post-conviction relief remedies. (b) the Supreme Court's subsequent rejection of constitutionally mandated post-conviction relief: the decisions in Pennsylvania v. Finley and Coleman v. Thompson. In retrospect, Justice Clark's and Justice Brennan's concurring opinions in Case v. Nebraska can be seen as the high-water mark of the notion that the federal due process clause requires states to offer post-conviction relief to criminal defendants. Eleven years after Case, the Supreme Court decided United States v. MacCollom. MacCollom presented the issue of whether an indigent applying for federal post-conviction relief is constitutionally entitled to a transcript at public expense. In a plurality opinion joined by three other members of the Court, Justice Rehnquist declared that "the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment ... certainly does not establish any right to collaterally attack a final judgment of conviction." After another eleven years, Justice Rehnquist garnered a fifth vote for his position. In Pennsylvania v. Finley, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that states are required to provide counsel at public expense to criminal defendants seeking post- conviction relief. Indeed, the Court concluded that states are not obliged to offer post- conviction relief in the first place. the Court declared: Postconviction relief is even further removed from the criminal trial than is discretionary direct review. It is not part of the criminal proceeding itself, and it is in fact considered to be civil in nature. It is a collateral attack that normally occurs only after the defendant has failed to secure relief through direct review of his conviction. States have no obligation to provide this avenue of relief, cf. United States v. MacCollom, and when they do so, the fundamental fairness mandated by the Due Process Clause does not require that the State supply a lawyer as well.