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The History of Habeas Corpus in America

Habeas corpus is an extraordinary remedy used to bring a confined person before a court to ensure that the person’s detention is not illegal. This “Great Writ” is a cornerstone of American jurisprudence. The Framers considered the writ crucially important to the protection of personal liberty, so much so that they wrote the “Suspension Clause” into the body of the Constitution — a Constitution that, at the outset, had no Bill of Rights. The Suspension Clause, found in Article 1, Section 9, provides that “[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.” The history of habeas corpus in America shows just how fundamental the founding fathers believed this right to be. Later we will discuss how the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) dramatically changed habeas corpus law and practice, including applicable statutes of limitations.

Habeas Corpus U.S. History

Alexander Hamilton wrote of the importance of the writ to preserving a country of limited government and broad personal liberty in The Federalist No. 84:

“[T]he practice of arbitrary imprisonments, have been, in all ages, the favorite and most formidable instruments of tyranny.  The observations of the judicious [William] Blackstone . . . are well worthy of recital:  ‘To bereave a man of life . . . or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole nation; but confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore a more dangerous engine of arbitrary government.’ And as a remedy for this fatal evil he is everywhere peculiarly emphatical in his encomiums on the habeas corpus act [of 1679], which in one place he calls ‘the bulwark of the British Constitution.'”

It is fair to say that the writ of habeas corpus is a bulwark of the U.S. Constitution as well.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, the Suspension Clause “ensures that, except during periods of formal suspension, the Judiciary will have a time tested device, the writ, to maintain the ‘delicate balance of governance’ that is itself the surest safeguard of liberty.” The Clause, says Justice Kennedy, “protects the rights of the detained by affirming the duty and authority of the Judiciary to call the jailer to account.”history of habeas corpus in America, AEDPA

As should be expected of any legal doctrine that has developed over several centuries and across continents, habeas corpus is an extraordinarily complex area of the law. The authority of a federal court to issue a writ of habeas corpus was first established by statute in the Judiciary Act of 1789. The statute was expanded in 1867 to extend the right of federal habeas corpus to state prisoners. In 1948, Congress adopted a series of statutes intended to supercede habeas corpus, but to nevertheless provide prisoners a remedy identical in scop to federal habeas corpus.  One particular statute, 28 U.S.C. 2255, was enacted with federal prisoners in mind. This is an important development in the history of habeas corpus in America.

Section 2255 is, like habeas corpus, a broad remedy that allows a federal prisoner to ask a court to vacate, set aside or correct a federal sentence on the grounds that “the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack.”  28 u.s.c. §2255(a). For the federal prisoner wishing to invoke habeas corpus to challenge his or her confinement, section 2255 provides the vehicle necessary to mount such a challenge.

 

Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)

Section 2255 is also a minefield for the uninitiated, whether  a layperson or a practitioner. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) greatly complicated section 2255 proceedings. The AEDPA imposed an equitably suspicious one-year habeas corpus statute of limitations, also known as a habeas corpus time limit, on all section 2255 motions. The AEDPA also greatly limited the availability of appeal, and rendered the availability of a second or successive section 2255 motion nearly nonexistant. This is an unfortunate development in the history of habeas corpus in America.

Regardless of the AEDPa’s habeas corpus statute of limitations or time limit, section 2255 remains a viable option for federal prisoners wishing to challenge their confinement in federal court. If you or a loved one is serving a federal sentence, contact us to discuss the options you may have to fight that case. Our attorneys have extensive experience with section 2255 proceedings and other forms of habeas corpus, and a proven track record of success. We will work with you every step of the way, and will ensure that you avoid the pitfalls of section 2255 practice.

For federal prisoners, section 2255 motions are often the last chance to get back in court. The stakes are high, and the process is a crucible. Don’t go it alone -contact us now for professional help with your case. Call 802-444-4357 to speak with attorney today.

 

The History of Habeas Corpus in America FAQs

 

Q:   What is habeas corpus?

A:   The history of habeas corpus in America is a legal writ rooted in English common law that is used to bring before a judge a challenge to the legality of governmental confinement.  The term habeas corpus is Latin, and literally means to “have the body.” Also known as the “Great Writ,” habeas corpus is available to American prisoners via federal statute, 28 U.S.C.. §2241, et seg.   Federal prisoners who wish to challenge the conviction and sentence that led to their detention may use 28 U.S.C. §2255 to invoke habeas corpus and get back in court.

Q:   What is a section 2255 motion, and how do you define habeas corpus?

A:   28 U.S.C. §2255 was enacted by Congress in 1948. Section 2255 allows a federal prisoner to petition a court to vacate, set aside or correct a federal sentence on the grounds that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, that the court was without jurisdiction to impose the sentence, that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or that the sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. The section 2255 motion is what a federal prisoner files with his sentencing court in order to ask for relief.

Q:   Aside from a direct appeal, how can I challenge my sentence using the writ of habeas corpus or a 2255 motion?

A:    Once a federal prisoner has exhausted the appeal process, he can challenge his conviction using 28 U.S.C. §2255. With few exceptions, only claims that could not have been brought on appeal are permitted as grounds for a section 2255 challenge. With that said, there are many grounds upon which a prisoner may mount a collateral challenge via §2255. Section 2255 motion practice is complex, and any federal prisoner wishing to file a section 2255 motion should seek the services of a habeas corpus attorney such as Brandon Sample. Such an attorney must understand the history of not only habeas corpus law, but also the history of habeas corpus in America.

Q: What does the AEDPA have to do with my section 2255 motion?

A: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), signed into law on April 24, 1996, made sundry changes to habeas corpus practice under §2255. This was a dramatic change in habeas corpus in America. Most importantly, the AEDPA imposes a one-year statute of limitations on the filing of section 2255 motions. The AEDPA also limits the availability of appeal in §2255 proceedings, and makes it very difficult for a federal prisoner to file a second or successive section 2255 motion.

Learn more about how the AEDPA impacts section 2255 movants.

Related Content

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)

 

The §2255(e) Savings Clause: Use §2241 When §2255 is Inadequate and Ineffective

 

Extraordinary Remedies and Recharacterization

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