When State Courts Fail: The Use of Federal Habeas Corpus to Vindicate Constitutional Rights

Dennis B. Feld, J.D., and Arthur A. Baer, J.D.

State deprivations of liberty take place in criminal and civil settings. In criminal proceedings, those facing trial may be found to lack capacity to assist in their own defense and be subject to “restoration” services by the state to make them fit for trial. Similarly, those found to lack responsibility because of psychiatric impairment at the time of criminal acts may be subject to State confinement and/or supervision based on pleas or findings of being not culpable for their criminal behavior. In the civil context, persons with sex offense criminal histories may be in pretrial preventive detention, deprived of their liberty for violations of civilly imposed conditions of supervision and treatment, or while awaiting trials in to determine whether they will be subject to civil management of confinement, or after successful appeals in State Court. In this workshop we will explore what happens when State remedies fail. What options are their to enlist the authority of the federal courts to redress constitutional wrongs not righted in State courts. We will consider the legal framework for using the federal habeas corpus process to redress rights when State courts fail. To do so, we will use examples of cases of compelled relief under Jackson vs Indiana, 406 US 715 (1972), of confinement where the person has been found not to be responsible for criminal acts, and from New York’s civil regimen of confinement and supervision for those with sex offense histories.

I. Background

State deprivations of liberty take place in criminal and civil settings. In criminal proceedings, those facing trial may be found to lack capacity to assist in their own defense and be subject to “restoration” services by the state to make them fit for trial. Similarly, those found to lack responsibility because of psychiatric impairment at the time of criminal acts may be subject to State confinement and/or supervision based on pleas or findings that they were not culpable because they lacked capacity at the time of the criminal act. In the civil context, persons with sex offense criminal histories may be in pretrial preventive detention, and deprived of their liberty, while awaiting trials after their sentences to determine whether they will be subject to civil management or confinement, or after successful appeals, or for violations of civilly imposed conditions of supervision and treatment. In this workshop we will explore what happens when State remedies fail.

II. Objectives

What are the options for enlisting the authority of the federal courts to redress constitutional wrongs not righted by State courts. We will consider the legal framework for using the the federal habeas corpus process to redress rights when State courts fail. To do so, we will use examples of cases of compelled relief under Jackson vs Indiana, 406 US 715 (1972), of confinement where the person has been found not to be responsible for criminal acts, and from New York’s civil regimen of confinement and supervision for those with sex offense histories.

After an initial presentation using case examples and possible approaches; the workshop will invite participants to share ideas about possible strategies to advocate on behalf of defendants in the above circumstances. Among the areas we will cover are:

  1. A basic understanding of the uses of federal habeas corpus
  2. The standards of review that apply to state orders and judgments in federal habeas review of review.
  3. The need to raise federal constitutional or statutory questions.
  4. The requirements of exhaustion and exceptions to those requirements.
  5. Statutes of limitations.
  6. The process in federal court and the federal rules that apply.
  7. Seeking informa pauperis relief
  8. Potential remedies that may be available.

III. Legal and Advocacy Strategies

A. Using the federal courts as a courts of last resort to protect Federal constitutional and statutory rights.
B. Preservation of federal challenges to deprivations of liberty. Potential claims and how to assess your case.
C. Preparing federal papers and the process in federal court.

  1. How involuntary commitment is distinct from involuntary treatment. .
  2. The continuum for viewing treatment determinations.
  3. How disagreements with treatment providers is not synonymous with incapacity.
  4. How collateral perceptions are distinct from those in deciding a particular treatment.

IV. Learning Goals:

A. Developing effective legal strategies - Understanding the possibilities for use of federal court approaches
B. Developing effective advocacy strategies - Understanding the possibilities for use of federal courts
C. Brainstorming to begin to develop an outline of long term strategies to confront failures of state courts to vindicate federal rights.

This workshop with explore these issues using examples from actual practice