SCOTUS Holds AEDPA`s Restrictions on Habeas Relief Trump Federal Courts` Authority Under All Writs Act

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held on June 21, 2022, that a federal court`s authority to invoke the All Writs Act in aid of a habeas case was limited by the restrictions under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), further hampering the ability of the federal courts in granting habeas relief to prisoners.

Almost 20 years ago, in 2003, Raymond Twyford filed a federal habeas petition, under 28 U.S.C. sec 2254, challenging his murder conviction and death sentence imposed by an Ohio court. He claimed ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) for his lawyer`s failure to present evidence of an old head injury he suffered as a teen that left him “unable to make rational and voluntary choices” that led up to the crime. This was a claim that he had unsuccessfully raised in the state post-conviction courts before heading to federal court.

The federal district court, however, took 14 years to rule on Twyford`s motion, eventually allowing some his IAC claims to proceed. Twyford then moved for an order to compel the state to transport him to The Ohio State University Medical Center for testing and brain scans to support his habeas claims. He offered a neurologist`s report that the scans were needed to prove his claim, and he said it was “plausible” these tests were “likely to reveal evidence in support” of his claims.

The district court granted Twyford`s motion, invoking the All Writs Act under 28 U.S.C. sec 1651(a), and the state appealed. The Sixth Circuit agreed the tests would produce evidence to further Twyford`s claims, and further held that it wasn`t necessary, at this stage, for Twyford to prove that the evidence would be “admissible” in court to pursue his claims. SCOTUS then agreed to hear the state`s appeal and reversed.

The issue before SCOTUS was whether the evidence Twyford hoped to find with the medical tests would have been “useful” to his habeas case. To answer this question, the Court turned to the AEDPA`s restrictions on introducing new evidence in a federal habeas case.

A federal court may not grant habeas relief to a state prisoner on a factual issue unless the state court`s decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” sec 2254(d)(2). SCOTUS has held that this determination by the federal court is limited to only the evidence and the record that was before the state court. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170 (2011).

But if a petitioner can show that a claim relies on “a factual predicate that could not have been previously discovered through the exercise of due diligence,” and show, “by clear and convincing evidence” no factfinder would have convicted him, the federal court may allow new evidence in a habeas case. sec 2254(e)(2). In other words, the evidence is admissible (or “useable,” as SCOTUS put it) if it would lead to a petitioner`s actual innocence.

SCOTUS reiterated in Twyford`s case that a federal habeas court is not an “alternate forum” for trying facts the petitioner failed to successfully argue in state court. And, citing the importance of “finality” of state convictions, the Court said that a federal court may not “needlessly prolong” a habeas case by holding “proceedings with no purpose.” Instead, a federal habeas court must “determine at the outset whether the new evidence sought could be legally considered.”

The district court failed to do this in Twyford`s case, the Court said, and invoking the All Writs Act could not bypass the AEDPA`s evidentiary standards. The All Writs Act authorizes a federal court to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” sec 1651(a). While it provides broad authority to the courts, the AEDPA trumps that authority in habeas cases, the Court said.

AEDPA provides the governing rules for federal habeas proceedings, and out precedents explain that a district court must consider that statute`s requirements before facilitating the development of new evidence. By the same token, a writ seeking new evidence would not be “necessary or appropriate in aid of” a federal habeas court`s jurisdiction, as all order issued under the All Writs Act must be, if it enables a prisoner to fish for unusable evidence, in the hope that it might undermine his conviction in some way. In every habeas case, the court must be guided by the general principles underlying our habeas corpus jurisprudence.

Applying these principles, the Court identified three critical errors in Twyford`s motion for transportation and medical testing to obtain the evidence needed for his habeas claims. First, the Court said Twyford`s motion “sheds no light on how he might persuade a court to consider the results of his testing, given the limitations AEDPA imposes on presenting new evidence.” He only argued that it`s “plausible” the testing would likely reveal evidence in support if his claims. “Twyford never explained how the results of the neurological testing could be admissible in his habeas proceeding,” the Court pointed out.

Second, Twyford never provided reasons why the evidence would meet the strict standard under sec 2254(e)(2)(B), to allow new evidence that wasn`t presented in the state court, and the federal court was limited to only the record that was before the state court without this evidence.

Third, Twyford did not present certain claims to the state court and failed to provide any reason for the federal court to excuse this procedural default. SCOTUS has held that a habeas claim presented to a federal court that was not presented in state court must be dismissed, unless the petitioner shows “cause to excuse his failure to comply with the state procedural rule and actual prejudice resulting from the alleged constitutional violation.” Davila v. Davis, 582 U.S. ___ (2017). In fact, Twyford failed to even identify the defaulted claims he hoped the evidence would “resurrect” in federal court, SCOTUS said, “nor did he explain how the testing would matter to his ability to do so.”

On a final note, the Court cited its recent opinion in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, 596 U.S. ___ (2022), where it held that a petitioner must meet both the standard under sec 2254(e)(2) and the AEDPA`s standards for new evidence, in order to expand the record to support a claim for habeas relief in federal court.

The Court therefore reversed the Sixth Circuit`s ruling and held that the All Writs Act did not bypass AEDPA`s restrictions on establishing new evidence in Twyford`s federal habeas case. See: Shoop v. Twyford, No. 21-511 (S. Ct. June 21, 2022).

Writer`s note: The Supreme Court seems to be on a warpath lately to limit the authority of federal courts in granting habeas relief to prisoners. With the Court`s recent holding that the “traditional role” of habeas was only to challenge a court`s jurisdiction over a case and that it was never to allow correction of even the most fundamental errors (like wrongful imprisonment), I`m wondering whether the AEDPA may be the only thing saving the habeas remedy as we know it. The laws that Congress put in place under the AEDPA to limit federal habeas corpus now appear to be preventing the Supreme Court from gutting it entirely, because Congress unwittingly codified the modern function of habeas corpus in the AEDPA. As limiting as the AEDPA may be, it`s much broader than any restrictions that the current majority of Justices on the Supreme Court would seem impose on federal habeas relief.

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