Habeas Corpus No Longer Protects the Criminally Convicted

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Lynn Adelman, a US District Court judge and a former Wisconsin state senator, believes that contemporary changes in US law have led to the destruction of habeas corpus, a legal principle intended to protect individuals from unlawful exercises of state power. Adelman writes that habeas corpus has “been so extensively diminished that it is no longer a protection against unlawful imprisonment but rather an empty procedure that enables and may actually encourage state courts to disregards constitutional rights.”

The writ of habeas corpus was adopted to the United States from English common law where it dates back to 1215. It can be found in the Suspension Clause in Article I, Section 9 of the US Constitution. In 1789, Congress passed the Judiciary Act which enabled prisoners to “challenge the legality of their custody” in federal courts. The purpose of habeas corpus is to determine the lawfulness of one being held in custody and to protect citizens against unlawful imprisonment

Adelman’s article focused on the case of Leandro Andrade. On November 4, 1995, Andrade was arrested after he attempted to shoplift five videotapes from a K-Mart in California. Two weeks after his arrest, he entered a different K-Mart and stole four more videotapes. Andrade was caught, arrested, and charged in a California state court for two counts of petty theft with a prior conviction. Andrade’s prison sentence for stealing roughly $150 worth of video tapes amounted to fifty years behind bars. Andrade was subject to California’s three strike law having been in and out of prison on multiple accounts. As a result of the three-strikes law, which was enacted one year before Andrade’s last arrest, each charge against him resulted in a minimum sentence of twenty-five years.

After his failed attempts to appeal in California courts, he petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court to challenge the constitutionality of his five-decade long sentence. When his case reached the Supreme Court on March 5, 2003, the court ruled against him. The modern legal era has continued to ignore and destroy habeas corpus, failing citizens such as Leandro Andrade, who is still serving his prison sentence today, with no chance of parole until the age of eighty-seven years old.

An increasingly conservative Supreme Court, Adelman writes, poses “numerous new obstacles for habeas petitioners,” including, for example, limits on federal review of state prisoners’ claims regarding the constitutionality of their cases. Despite these changes, a state prisoner still has the right for a federal court to review the merits of their constitutional claim. If a prisoner has been imprisoned as a result of a constitutional violation, a federal court has the authority and the duty to grant a writ of habeas corpus.

Adelman tracks the demise of habeas corpus back to April 1996, when President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which had been championed by congressional Republicans who made habeas corpus reform a top priority. Adelman writes that, despite Clinton’s constitutional law background, he signed a bill that weakened the foundational legal principle of habeas corpus. Adelman attributes Clinton’s signing of the bill to his own political gain, as he wanted to appear tough on crime. According to Adelman, “A terrible bill thus became the law of the land.”

Source: Lynn Adelman, “Who Killed Habeas Corpus?,” Dissent Magazine, Winter 2018, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/who-killed-habeas-corpus-bill-clinton-aedpa-states-rights.

Student Researcher: Sophie Rachel Behrend (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Robert Williams Jr.  (University of Vermont)