Habeas Corpus - Retroactivity of Post-Conviction Rulings: Finality at the Expense of Justice

Article excerpt


In Gilmore v. Taylor,(1) the United States Supreme Court held that the Seventh Circuit's ruling in Falconer v. Lane,(2) which declared unconstitutional the Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions for murder and voluntary manslaughter, could not be applied retroactively to a state prisoner whose conviction became final before Falconer was decided.(3) Applying Teague v. Lane,(4) the Court determined that the Falconer holding, which invalidated jury instructions practically identical to those given at respondent Kevin Taylor's trial, could not be applied retroactively to Taylor's case because it announced a "new rule" that was not "dictated by precedent" existing at the time of Taylor's trial.(5)

This Note examines the Court's decision in Gilmore and concludes that the Court adopted an unreasonably broad definition of what constitutes a new rule under Teague. The Court's application of Teague suggests that any time a federal habeas petitioner makes a claim that is not directly supported by precedents that are precisely on point, that petitioner asks for the benefit of a new rule that cannot be applied retroactively.6 In other words, Gilmore has made it effectively impossible for a prisoner to bring a successful federal habeas claim unless the state imprisoned him in open defiance of constitutional precedents that were on point at the time of conviction. As a result, the Court has practically eliminated the doctrine of federal habeas corpus as Congress envisioned it and wiped away at least forty years of precedent. With the exception of the few criminal cases heard on direct review, this self-imposed limitation makes the Court powerless to overturn erroneous state convictions in all but the most egregious cases of bad-faith state defiance. By placing unreasonable emphasis on preserving the finality of convictions, the Court has relinquished one of its fundamental duties and given the states primary authority to determine what the Federal Constitution requires of their criminal proceedings.



The doctrine of federal habeas corpus enables federal courts to order a state to release or retry prisoners held in violation of the Federal Constitution.(7) Federal habeas review can take place only after a state conviction has become final and all other state postconviction remedies have been exhausted.(8) Typically, federal habeas proceedings begin at the district court level.(9) Because they involve federal district court review of state court decisions, federal habeas claims are often referred to as "collateral" proceedings to distinguish them from direct appeals to the Supreme Court.(10)

Federal habeas corpus has its origins in the Judiciary Act of 1789.(11) Initially, the doctrine of federal habeas corpus acted only to correct jurisdictional errors made by federal courts-relief was granted only to federal detainees who were convicted in courts that did not have jurisdiction over their cases.(12) During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, federal habeas jurisdiction expanded. The Habeas Corpus Act of 1867 extended federal habeas jurisdiction to state court convictions and allowed federal courts to grant relief in cases where the conviction resulted from an unconstitutional law.(13) By 1953, at the latest, federal habeas relief could be granted for the same types of constitutional errors recognizable on direct appeal.(14) As civil rights and constitutional guarantees expanded in the 1960s, the writ of habeas corpus enabled federal courts to enforce the Bill of Rights against the states, establishing minimum standards of due process throughout the nation.(15)

In recent years, the Rehnquist Court has severely limited the scope of federal habeas review through a number of judicial innovations.(16) Among the most effective limitations on federal habeas corpus is the Court's modification of the retroactivity doctrine in federal habeas corpus announced in Teague v. …