JurisdictionNorth Carolina

Chapter 2 Introduction to AEDPA

Unhappy with decisions like Brown v. Allen and motivated by the work of scholars like Professor Bator, Congress sought to legislatively curtail the reach of federal habeas corpus review. After decades of legislative failure, during which attempts to redu ce the scope of federal habeas review were rejected, in 1996 Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed into law, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

As two commentators summarized the events:

Criminals are not popular. No politician in recent memory has lost an election for being too tough on crime. In 1996, the Republican Congress and the Democratic President collaborated on two major statutes affecting the legal protections available to criminals. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) modifies the habeas corpus statute in a number of ways, affecting the disposition of federal post-conviction challenges to all criminal convictions, not just those resulting in death sentences.1

The remainder of this chapter is devoted to highlighting some of the major changes introduced by AEDPA.

A. When Do the Restrictions Announced in AEDPA Apply?

The focus of this book is the procedures and rights associated with federal habeas corpus review of a state conviction. The limitations contained in AEDPA discussed in this chapter apply to every federal habeas petition filed by a state prisoner.2 Accordingly, the question of whether AEDPA's limitations can be applied retroactively was one of the first major issues litigated under the new act. This question was resolved in Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320 (1997). In Lindh, the Court held that AEDPA applies only to cases that were not pending when the legislation was enacted on April 24, 1996.

If AEDPA applies to all federal habeas actions that were not pending on April 24, 1996, then a critical question is what constitutes a pending petition. The Ninth Circuit addressed this question in Calderon v. U.S. Dist. Court for the Cent. Dist. of Cal., 128 F.3d 1283 (9th Cir. 1997). When AEDPA was enacted on April 24, 1996, Rodney Gene Beeler had filed his request for appointment of counsel and stay of execution but not his application for a writ of habeas corpus. Judge Kozinski addressed Beeler's argument that "filing the request for appointment of counsel commenced his case" for purposes of AEDPA applicability. Judge Kozinski noted that "Rule 11 of the Rules Governing § 2254 Cases says '[t]he Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to the extent that they are not inconsistent with these rules, may be applied, when appropriate, to petitions filed under these rules.'" He reasoned that "[f]iling an application for a writ is analogous to filing a complaint, which commences a civil case under Fed. R. Civ. P. 3." Requesting counsel, even if it is a required preliminary step, is not functionally analogous to "filing a complaint." Instead, the court concluded that "for purposes of determining cases to which the AEDPA applies, a case is pending when the application for a writ of habeas corpus is filed." See Calderon, 128 F.3d at 1287 and n.3.

The Ninth Circuit subsequently took up this issue sitting en banc and held, "[A] petition for the appointment of counsel to prepare and file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, accompanied by a motion for a stay of execution ***is a threshold action that presents a 'case' to the district court." Calderon, 163 F.3d 530, 540 (9th Cir. 1998) (en banc). In so doing, they overruled the previous circuit court decision.

The Ninth Circuit's internal disagreement was, however, made moot by the Supreme Court's ruling in Woodford v. Garceau, 538 U.S. 20 (2003). In Woodford the Court settled the question and held that "an application filed after AEDPA's effective date should be reviewed under AEDPA, even if other filings by that same applicant—such as, for example, a request for the appointment of counsel or a motion for a stay of execution—were presented to a federal court prior to AEDPA's effective date."

The question of when a case is "pending" also is significant for determining whether the statute of limitations on filing a habeas action has run. This is because the time limit for filing a federal habeas petition is tolled while a properly filed state petition is pending in the state court, as the next section explains.

B. Statute of Limitations

There has long been debate about the equity and proper application of a statute of limitations imposed on prisoners that forever forecloses the vindication of constitutional violations. Recall that Professor Bator noted, "Even if we conclude that we should have a federal collateral jurisdiction to test the integrity of previous state proceedings ... we should be aware that the policies we have been discussing do not support the notion that federal collateral attack should be available without limit of time."3 For decades Congressional efforts to impose a statute of limitations proved fruitless. In Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U.S. 254, 265 (1986), for example, the Court commented that "despite many attempts in recent years, Congress has yet to create a statute of limitations for federal habeas corpus actions." And in an appendix to its opinion in Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314 (1996), the Court listed more than 80 bills proposing statutes of limitations for federal habeas cases that Congress had introduced but had not adopted over the previous ten years.

Proponents of more limited access to federal habeas review were successful in large part due to the statute of limitations in AEDPA. Section 2244(d) provides:

(1) A 1-year period of limitation shall apply to an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court. The limitation period shall run from the latest of—
(A) the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review;
(B) the date on which the impediment to filing an application created by State action in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States is removed, if the applicant was prevented from filing by such State action;
(C) the date on which the constitutional right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if the right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review; or
(D) the date on which the factual predicate of the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.
(2) The time during which a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment or claim is pending shall not be counted toward any period of limitation under this subsection.


1. What is the purpose of imposing a statute of limitations on the ability of a prisoner to challenge the constitutionality of his or her detention? The Conference Committee Report provides an insight into the thinking of the members of Congress who supported the


This title incorporates reforms to curb the abuse of the statutory writ of habeas corpus, and to address the acute problems of unnecessary delay and abuse in capital cases. It sets a one year limitation on an application for a habeas writ and revises the procedures for consideration of a writ in federal court.

H.R. Rep. No. 104-518, at 111 (1996) (Conf. Rep.).

2. Under §2244 a prisoner has one year in which to file a federal habeas corpus petition. At what point in the case does the one-year time limit begin to run? What happens if the state post-conviction court fails to complete its review of the state petition within a year? What happens if the state post-conviction lawyer takes a full year to prepare and file the state post-conviction petition?

3. A conviction becomes final at the conclusion of direct review. This means that the time permitted for seeking direct review in the U.S. Supreme Court does not count against the one-year time limit.

4. What if a federal habeas petition is filed within the one-year time limit but the prisoner attempts to add additional claims after the one-year limit? Should it matter whether the new claims are "tied to a common core of operative facts" in the original pleading and thus relate back under Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c)? See Mayle v. Felix, 545 U.S. 644, 664 (2005) (applying the civil procedure doctrine of relation back to federal habeas proceedings).

C. 28 U.S.C. §2254

The revisions to §2254, in particular § 2254(d), have rightly been called the centerpiece of AEDPA. Many habeas lawyers make the mistake of turning only to the current version of § 2254, but understanding the current version requires a familiarity with how the statute read before AEDPA was enacted. Both versions of the statute are provided below. Take several minutes to review and compare the pre-AEDPA and AEDPA versions.

28 U.S.C. §2254 (1948-1996)

(a) The Supreme Court, a Justice thereof, a circuit judge, or a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.

(b) An application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted unless it appears that the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State, or that there is either an absence of available State corrective process or the existence of circumstances rendering such process ineffective to protect the rights of the prisoner.

(c) An applicant shall not be deemed to have exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State, within the meaning of this section, if he has the right under the law of the State to raise, by any available procedure, the questions presented.

(d) In any...

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