Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Petition Denied"

The title says it all: these are very familiar words to the federal habeas petitioner attacking his or her state court conviction. Habeas is a maze of sorts with many dead ends invariably leading back to the jail cell that gave rise to the petition.

I'm not going to bore you with a long-winded discussion of how habeas works. But, when I was perusing the internet the other day, I stumbled across this boiler plate form from the Eastern District of New York--presumably to be "filled in" and filed as a memorandum and order to dismiss a habeas petitioner's case. It's not really surprising that something like this exists given that the pleading patterns in many habeas cases are similar. Indeed, it makes good sense to handle simple, routine cases with non-precedential, boiler plate opinions--whether made by macro or some fill-in-the-blanks form. And I know these types of forms are used in other contexts, too.

On the other hand, it kind of makes me doubt the system as a whole. There's enough judicial access for petitioners so as to warrant this method for efficiency reasons, but the fact that the judiciary is able to readily (and successfully) resort to boiler plate demonstrates how difficult recovery really is. So the floodgates for habeas are open just enough that they're burdening the federal judiciary, but not necessarily enough to ensure that everyone with a valid claim can recover.

What solution would I propose? I don't know that there is one and, moreover, I don't think we need one. The current system--albeit flawed in some respects--may just strike the appropriate balance between judicial efficiency concerns, and our continued reverence for liberty.


  1. Wow! I never knew this was what potential criminals in this country face if they attempt to get federal redress.

  2. Sarcasm, Benjamin?

  3. As the author of an upcoming habeas opinion (awaiting approval from the judge), I have to say 2 things.

    (1) It was a huge pain in the ass to figure out what the hell the petitioner wanted; and, when I finally overcame that hurdle, all of his claims were completely frivolous. It was a good experience for me (personally) in how to draft an opinion, but it would've been a waste of time for the clerk and/or the judge to do any of the heavy lifting on it.
    (2) The S. Ct's precedence on habeas has effectively gutted habeas to the point that the petition can be decided on an introductory smell-test... which, come to think of it, ain't so bad.

  4. Would you be in favor of further limiting habeas then, Mastershake? It sounds like the whole things a waste based on yoru points.

  5. Master Shake--

    Good points; I'm inclined to agree, of course. I'm curious to hear your response to 1:21.

    Also, this may sound weird, but can you e-mail our article tip line? We have a question for you best reserved for a non-public forum.

  6. Part of me wants Congress to abolish habeas relief completely as most states already have effective habeas-like collateral proceedings. On the other hand, I have also read a couple of cases (none that are recent) where the state court's really fucked the defendant over. A friend of mine who use to do habeas for the State AG called it an "arcane, nonsensical practice..." and I'm inclined to believe her.

    Habeas would be a waste if a judge or law clerk would have to draft and/or research it; as an extern, however, it was great experience and a good chance to get a killer writing sample for later on.

  7. I am a clerk and I don't find the use of boiler plate to be offensive. As mastershake noted a lot of the cases are frivolous for the same reasons--the majority of the time the petition is untimely or the petitioner has failed to exhaust state remedies before filing in federal court. Using the boilerplate just gets through the whole process faster for everyone. What's the alternative--rewrite the opinion with the same cases every time? I have great sympathy for federal prisoners trying to navigate the legal system but the reality is that most of their claims--even if they are 100% true (generally not the case)--fail as a matter of law. Now whether the law is too strict or has essentially gutted the remedy is a different issue that is out of my "boilerplate makes my drafting job easier" hands.

  8. @ 2:51 --

    Thanks for sharing. Your last point is what my post was really getting at; I agree that, as the system is structured, we need the boiler plate forms. We need them in other contexts, too. What I wonder is what the need for (and amenability of) such forms to habeas says about the remedy in the first place.

    At the moment, I'm inclined to, as I stated in my original posting, believe that the balance between judicial efficiency and individual rights for state prisoners may just be enough. I'm open to debate on this, of course.

    Thanks, again, for chiming in!


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