The Path to Habeas Corpus Narrows: Interpreting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)

The enforcement of the U.S. Constitution within the criminal justice system is an odd subspecies of constitutional law. In areas other than criminal law, federal courts act as the ultimate guarantors of constitutional rights by providing remedies whenever violations occur. Criminal law, however, is different by necessity; the bulk of criminal justice occurs in state courthouses, leaving constitutional compliance largely to state judges. The U.S. Supreme Court, of course, may review these decisions if it chooses, but a writ of certiorari can be elusive, especially given the Court’s shrinking docket. After World War II, however, this feature of criminal constitutional law came under attack. Many critics, particularly members of the civil rights movement, saw state judiciaries as insensitive to defendants’ constitutional rights and demanded more extensive federal oversight of criminal law. In its 1953 decision Brown v. Allen, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the system of federal habeas corpus to provide such supervision. Federal habeas corpus for state convicts works in the following way: Prisoners convicted in state court can seek in federal district court a writ of habeas corpus that collaterally attacks the constitutional underpinnings of the state court’s judgment. If the federal court finds a constitutjonal violation, it issues the writ, forcing the state to release the prisoner from custody. In effect, federal habeas corpus serves as a means of federal appeal for state prisoners, providing a vehicle for federal enforcement of state prisoners’ constitutional rights. The strength of this system, however, fundamentally depends on the extent of review permitted federal courts. If a federal court reviews a state judgment under a de novo standard of review, it can grant a writ of habeas corpus whenever it simply disagrees with a state court’s constitutional interpretation. Alternatively, a deferential standard of review greatly reduces the reach of a federal court’s authority, as a federal court may issue the writ only when it finds the state court’s decision unreasonable – not merely when it disagrees with that decision.