Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Protecting First Federal Habeas Corpus Petitions: Closing the Opening Left by Gomez

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Protecting First Federal Habeas Corpus Petitions: Closing the Opening Left by Gomez

Article excerpt

Lonchar v. Thomas, 116 S. Ct. 1293 (1996)

I. INTRODUCTION

In Lonchar v. Thomas,(1) the Supreme Court held that a court may not dismiss a first federal habeas corpus petition for ad hoc equitable reasons outside the framework of the Federal Habeas Corpus Rules.(2) Lonchar involved a petitioner who filed his first federal petition nearly eight years after a jury convicted him on three counts of malice murder and one count of aggravated assault.(3) In an opinion by justice Breyer, the Court first noted that a court cannot deny a stay of execution when a first petition contains claims worthy of consideration, because that court would abuse its discretion by allowing the case to become moot as a result of the petitioner's death.(4) Justice Breyer then stated that the Eleventh Circuit improperly relied upon special ad hoc equitable reasons in vacating Lonchar's stay of execution and refusing to consider his first petition because of abusive delay.(5) The Court reversed the circuit court's decision because it was (1) contrary to the gradual evolution of formal judicial, statutory, and rules-based doctrines of law concerning habeas petitions, and (2) improperly based on Gomez v. United States District Court for Northern District of California,(6) which was applicable only to successive petitions.(7)

This Note argues that the Supreme Court's real purpose in Lonchar was to protect the availability of first federal habeas corpus petitions by narrowing the scope of the per curiam opinion in Gomez. The 1992 Gomez decision allowed for different valid interpretations of whether a court is permitted to dismiss a first federal habeas corpus petition based on a petitioner's abusive delay in filing the petition.(8) Justice Breyer could have entirely avoided this problem based on the Court's unanimous opinion that Larry Lonchar's conduct was not abusive.(9) Instead, Breyer chose to limit the applicability of Gomez to successive petitions, and thereby prevented lower courts from using the "abuse of the writ" doctrine to dismiss first petitions.(10) This note further argues that justice Breyer's protection of first petitions was consistent with congressional intent and Supreme Court precedent.

II. BACKGROUND

A. THE ORIGINS AND EARLY HISTORY OF AMERICAN FEDERAL HABEAS CORPUS LAW

For the imprisoned, the "Great Writ" of habeas corpus is a procedural safeguard protecting personal liberty.(11) The protection of the writ originated in English common law.(12) Article I, section 9 of the United States Constitution also guarantees the writ: "[t]he Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."(13) The writ was not designed to adjudicate the guilt of a prisoner, but merely allows the prisoner to contest the validity of his or her imprisonment.(14) Accordingly, the judiciary Act of 1789(15) first empowered federal courts to issue the writ to federal prisoners who wanted to challenge the jurisdiction of their confining court(16) or to challenge detention without proper legal process by the President.(17) There was no expansion of the Great Writ's protection until 1867, when Congress also gave state prisoners the chance to contest their confinement in federal court.(18)

However, the Act of 1867 did not explicitly define the scope of the writ or the procedures associated with it.(19) Therefore, courts in the late nineteenth century usually followed the common law practice that res judicata(20) did not apply to a dismissed habeas corpus petition, and prisoners were free to successively petition other courts.(21) When the appeal process for denial of these petitions later became available, confusion developed.(22) Some state courts denied habeas corpus appeals based on res judicata(23) while others used an intermediate approach allowing smaller numbers of successive petitions.(24)

The Supreme Court finally resolved the confusion in 1924 with Salinger v. …

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