Federal Habeas Corpus: Understanding the Order and Judgment

The court`s order deciding your federal habeas corpus case and its subsequent judgment are important to understand, since all future steps will depend on these two things. While the judgment is the thing that ends a habeas case in the district court, it`s the order that provides the court`s reasons for granting or denying relief.

The Difference Between a Judgment and an Order in a Federal Habeas Case

There may be several orders by the court in your habeas case, but the “order” we will focus on here is the final order either granting or denying relief. An order is defined as a “command, direction, or instruction” by a court, and a “final order” is one that ends the proceedings and “leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment.” Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229 (1945). The final order contains the judge`s reasons for the decision and will form the basis of your appeal (if denied) or the relief you will be given (if granted). However, you technically appeal the court`s judgment, even though it`s the courts order that you will be referring to throughout your appeal.

A judgment is defined by the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(a) as “any order from which an appeal lies.” While it`s true that this definition says it`s an “order,” that same rule also requires that a judgment not contain all the details that an order normally has. In fact, a judgment that contains “substantial discussion of the law and facts” is not a judgment but an order. Mitchell v. Idaho, 814 F.2d 1405 (8th Cir. 1987).

Why is this difference important? Because the time to file an appeal or certain post-judgment motions runs from the date that judgment is entered, not the date of the order.

Entry of the Judgment in a Habeas Case

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 79(a), the court clerk is required to keep a “civil docket” that tracks every filing in a civil case. The purpose of the docket is to ensure the public has access to the happenings in a case. Since habeas corpus is a civil matter in a federal court, the civil rules apply and your case is tracked on a civil docket. But note that some courts don`t recognize habeas cases as civil matters for federal prisoners filing under 28 U.S.C. sec 2255, and simply consider the court`s order in a habeas case on the criminal docket sheet to be sufficient to trigger the appeal clock.

The “entry” of judgment is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58, which requires the clerk to enter judgment when the court “denies all relief.” Judgment is considered “entered” when the clerk enters it on the docket, not when the judge signs it. This then closes the case.

Rule 58 also requires that the judgment in a habeas case must be set out in a separate document, apart from the court`s order. The reason for this separate document rule is to ensure the judgment is “clearly, unequivocally a final judgment, telling the parties that the time for appeal is definitively beginning to run.” Kolman v. Shalala, 39 F.3d 173 (7th Cir. 1994). The other reason for the separate document rule is that certain post-judgment motions, such as those under Federal Rule Civil Procedure 59(e), must be filed within a set time after judgment is entered.

So, what happens if the court or clerk never enters judgment in a habeas case? Rule 58 says the judgment is then automatically “entered” 150 days after the date of the court`s final order. The deadline for any notice of appeal or Rule 59(e) motion would then run from the end of that 150 days.

Compelling the Court to Decide a Habeas Case

More often than not, a habeas case takes a year or more to come to an end in the district court, sometimes several years. But unless you`re facing immediate release if relief is granted, pushing the court to decide your motion faster may not be the best idea. First, you risk angering the judge who may simply deny relief. But more importantly, any new cases that come along in support of your claims would apply to your habeas case while it remains open in the court. However, if your case is denied and then a good case comes down, you`re out of luck. It`s nearly impossible to convince a federal court to reopen a habeas case for even the best of reasons.

If you still want to push the court to rule on your habeas case, you have the ability under 28 U.S.C. sec 1657 to do so. This statute deals with the priority of civil cases in the district court, and says that any action filed under Chapter 153 of Title 28 must be given priority. Sections 2241, 2254, and 2255 fall under Chapter 153 of Title 28, the “habeas” chapter. Section 1657 says that the court “shall expedite” a habeas case “if good cause is shown,” defined as a claim that has “merit.” Post v. Gilmore, 111 F.3d 556 (7th Cir. 1997).

The way to ask a court to give your habeas case priority under sec 1657 is by way of a “writ of mandamus,” filed in the court of appeals, asking the court to compel the district court to rule on your habeas case. Johnson v. Rogers, 917 F.2d 1283 (10th Cir. 1990). If you don`t want to stir things up that much, you can always “supplement” your motion with updated caselaw or facts in support of your claims. This may be a more friendly way to remind your judge that your case is waiting his decision, rather than having the court of appeals command him to make a ruling, like a mandamus would.

Dismissal With Prejudice in a Habeas Corpus Case

An “adjudication on the merits” is where the court makes a decision after considering and weighing the merits of your claims. It`s “a decision finally resolving the [petitioner`s] claim.” These types of dismissals are typically “with prejudice” so that you can`t file again. Thomas v. Horn, 570 F.3d 105 (3d Cir. 2009).

In the world of habeas corpus, most dismissals and denials are considered an adjudication on the merits, even if the court doesn`t reach the merits of the claims and dismisses the case for being filed too late. While it may seem unfair and may not even make sense, courts blame the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) for such a harsh result. See, e.g., Griham v. United States, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100780 (N.D. Ala. June 13, 2019).

In the world of non-habeas civil cases, a claim dismissed as time-barred claim would be prevented from being raised again under res judicata, but it would not prevent the remedy itself from being used again. But with a habeas claim that is dismissed as time-barred, the entire habeas remedy cannot be used again (except in very rare situations). It`s an unfair result, and one that continues to keep prisoners from challenging even unlawful imprisonment.

Dismissal Without Prejudice in a Habeas Corpus Case

A dismissal without prejudice means that you can refile the same thing again, if you can fix the legal problem with the original filing. Often, this type of dismissal occurs in a habeas case when a state prisoner hasn`t exhausted all state-court remedies available before going to the federal court. A dismissal without prejudice would then allow the prisoner to re-file the same claims again once the exhaustion requirement is met. See sec 2254(b).

Staying the Judgment

While it would be rare for you to want to put on hold, or “stay,” your judgment in the district court if relief is granted, the prosecutor (government) would most certainly do this so it can file an appeal. The government`s motion to stay a judgment is supposed to be made in the district court, but most often it`s the court of appeals that handles this when the appeal is filed. See FRAP 8. It makes no difference which court imposes a stay.

The Supreme Court outlined, in Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770 (1987), a four-part standard that must be met to allow a judgment to be stayed for an appeal:

1. Whether the stay applicant has made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits, 2. Whether the applicant will be irreparably injured absent a stay,
3. Whether issuance of the stay will subsequently injure the other parties interested in the proceeding, and 4. Where the public interest lies.

The last prong carries great weight when it comes to releasing prisoners in a habeas corpus proceeding. However, the government using a stay to simply keep someone in prison longer is an abuse of discretion if the district court grants it. Young v. INS, 208 F.3d 1116 (9th Cir. 2000). If you think the government`s motion to stay was wrong and you`d like to challenge the court`s stay order, the courts are split over how you would go about this. Some courts say you can`t appeal the stay order itself but must instead file for a writ of mandamus in the court of appeals, asking the stay to be “lifted.” Most other courts have held the opposite, saying that the stay order is appealable. United States v. Smith, 670 Fed. Appx. 661 (10th Cir. 2016).

Another stay that seems to go unnoticed is the automatic stay under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 62(a), which stays any civil judgment for 30 days pending an appeal, unless the court orders otherwise. See United States v. Schmidt, 295 F. Supp. 3d 586 (E.D.N.C. 2018).

The Judgment Must be “Final” for an Appeal

A few things can render a judgment in a habeas case nonfinal to prevent taking an appeal. For federal prisoners, if relief is granted then the judgment isn`t final until the relief granted is actually carried out (except for the grant of a new trial). See Andrews v. United States, 373 U.S. 334 (1963), United States v. Hammer, 564 F.3d 628 (3d Cir. 2009).

A court`s failure to adjudicate every claim will also render a judgment nonfinal. See, e.g. Clisby v. Jones, 960 F.2d 925 (11th Cir. 1992). And when a court grants partial relief but denies the rest of the motion, the judgment is final for an appeal of all the claims, even though partial relief was granted for a few of them. United States v. Futch, 518 F.3d 887 (11th Cir. 2008).

IN CONCLUSION, the order and judgment of the court in a federal habeas corpus case are critically important in determining the next steps you might take to obtain relief. Unfortunately, too many people overlook these little details, missing the chance to raise challenges at the proper time.

Dale Chappell has hundreds of published articles on federal habeas corpus and is the author of several post-conviction books, including Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners: An Insider`s Guide, and Habeas Corpus for Federal Prisoners: An Insider`s Guide. See his blog at www.ZenLawGuy.com.

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