Protecting first federal habeas corpus petitions: closing the opening left by Gomez.

AuthorKolakowski, John L.
PositionSupreme Court Review

Lonchar v. Thomas, 116 S. Ct. 1293 (1996)


    In Lonchar v. Thomas,(1) the Supreme Court held that a court may not dismiss a first federal habeas corpus petition for ad hoc equitable reasons outside the framework of the Federal Habeas Corpus Rules.(2) Lonchar involved a petitioner who filed his first federal petition nearly eight years after a jury convicted him on three counts of malice murder and one count of aggravated assault.(3) In an opinion by justice Breyer, the Court first noted that a court cannot deny a stay of execution when a first petition contains claims worthy of consideration, because that court would abuse its discretion by allowing the case to become moot as a result of the petitioner's death.(4) Justice Breyer then stated that the Eleventh Circuit improperly relied upon special ad hoc equitable reasons in vacating Lonchar's stay of execution and refusing to consider his first petition because of abusive delay.(5) The Court reversed the circuit court's decision because it was (1) contrary to the gradual evolution of formal judicial, statutory, and rules-based doctrines of law concerning habeas petitions, and (2) improperly based on Gomez v. United States District Court for Northern District of California,(6) which was applicable only to successive petitions.(7)

    This Note argues that the Supreme Court's real purpose in Lonchar was to protect the availability of first federal habeas corpus petitions by narrowing the scope of the per curiam opinion in Gomez. The 1992 Gomez decision allowed for different valid interpretations of whether a court is permitted to dismiss a first federal habeas corpus petition based on a petitioner's abusive delay in filing the petition.(8) Justice Breyer could have entirely avoided this problem based on the Court's unanimous opinion that Larry Lonchar's conduct was not abusive.(9) Instead, Breyer chose to limit the applicability of Gomez to successive petitions, and thereby prevented lower courts from using the "abuse of the writ" doctrine to dismiss first petitions.(10) This note further argues that justice Breyer's protection of first petitions was consistent with congressional intent and Supreme Court precedent.



      For the imprisoned, the "Great Writ" of habeas corpus is a procedural safeguard protecting personal liberty.(11) The protection of the writ originated in English common law.(12) Article I, section 9 of the United States Constitution also guarantees the writ: "[t]he Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."(13) The writ was not designed to adjudicate the guilt of a prisoner, but merely allows the prisoner to contest the validity of his or her imprisonment.(14) Accordingly, the judiciary Act of 1789(15) first empowered federal courts to issue the writ to federal prisoners who wanted to challenge the jurisdiction of their confining court(16) or to challenge detention without proper legal process by the President.(17) There was no expansion of the Great Writ's protection until 1867, when Congress also gave state prisoners the chance to contest their confinement in federal court.(18)

      However, the Act of 1867 did not explicitly define the scope of the writ or the procedures associated with it.(19) Therefore, courts in the late nineteenth century usually followed the common law practice that res judicata(20) did not apply to a dismissed habeas corpus petition, and prisoners were free to successively petition other courts.(21) When the appeal process for denial of these petitions later became available, confusion developed.(22) Some state courts denied habeas corpus appeals based on res judicata(23) while others used an intermediate approach allowing smaller numbers of successive petitions.(24)

      The Supreme Court finally resolved the confusion in 1924 with Salinger v. Loisel(25) and Wong Doo v. United States.(26) These two cases clearly established that res judicata does not apply to the denial of federal habeas corpus petitions(27) and laid the groundwork for what would later be known as the "abuse of the writ" doctrine.(28) Due to the availability of appellate review, the Court determined in Salinger that successive petitions should be

      disposed of in the exercise of a sound judicial discretion guided and

      controlled by a consideration of whatever has a national bearing on the

      propriety of the discharge sought. Among the matters which may be

      considered, and even given controlling weight, are (a) the existence of

      another remedy, such as a right in ordinary course to an appellate review

      in the criminal case, and (b) a prior refusal to discharge on a like


      Soon after Salinger, the Court applied that decision's rule in Wong Doo.(30) The petitioner there presented two claims in his original petition, but argued only one.(31) After the district court denied his petition, he attempted to raise the abandoned claim in a successive petition which the court also dismissed.(32) The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling because the petitioner had ample opportunity to offer proof of his abandoned claim when he brought his first petition, and had no reason for not doing so.(33) The Court noted that "[t]o reserve the proof for use in attempting to support a later petition, if the first failed, was to make an abusive use of the writ of habeas corpus."(34)

      The Court next addressed abuse of the writ in 1948.(35) In Price v. Johnston, the Court delineated the burdens of both the government and the petitioner regarding possible abuse of the writ.(36) The Court held that the State must be clear and particular in establishing that a petitioner,has abused the writ with a successive petition.(37) If the State met this standard, then the burden shifted to the petitioner to show that he or she had a valid reason for the delay in presenting a new claim.(38) The Court gave two examples of valid reasons: acquiring new relevant information or being unaware of the significance of prior known facts.(39)


      One month after the Court decided Price, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. [sections] 2244, the first statute dealing with successive federal habeas corpus petitions.(40) This statute allowed a federal court to dismiss a subsequent petition that presented no new grounds for relief.(41) Some interpreters believed by negative implication that Congress was also forcing courts to accept petitions that alleged any new relief grounds.(42) However, this would have been contrary to common law principles recognizing that new claims could constitute abuse if a petitioner unreasonably excluded them from prior petitions.(43) Anticipating this confusion, the Reviser's Note to the statute pointed out that Congress did not intend to disrupt the judicial evolution of habeas principles,(44) so the abuse of the writ doctrine which the Court developed in Wong Doo and Price remained unchanged.(45)

      In 1963, the Court confirmed the unchanged status of the abuse of the writ doctrine in Sanders v. United States.(46) The Sanders Court dealt with a related provision of the judicial code, 28 U.S.C. [sections] 2255, which allowed a federal district court to refuse to entertain a subsequent habeas corpus petition seeking "similar relief"(47) The Court simplified its analysis by concluding that [sections] 2255 was the "material equivalent" of [sections] 2244, and that [sections] 2255 did not announce a stricter abuse of the writ standard.(48) With this equivalence in mind, the Court moved on to describe its interpretation of [sections] 2244's coverage.(49) The Court explained that this statute addressed only a first situation of successive petitions based on relief grounds which a court had already heard and dismissed on the merits.(50) The Court distinguished a second situation commonly giving rise to abuse of the writ--where a petition contains a different ground for relief, or an earlier ground for relief which the petitioner abandoned(51)--and stated that it was not within the statute's coverage.(52) Where this second situation arose, a court could avoid considering the petition's merits only if there had been an abuse of the writ.(53) The opinion then stated that a court was to use equitable principles as a guide when determining if there had been abuse, including the principle that "a suitor's conduct in relation to the matter at hand may disentitle him to the relief he seeks."(54) The Court gave examples:

      if a prisoner deliberately withholds one of two grounds for federal

      collateral relief at the time of filing his first application, in

      the hope of being granted two hearings rather than one ... he may

      be deemed to have waived his right to a hearing on a second application

      presenting the withheld ground. The same may be true if, as in Wong

      Doo, the prisoner deliberately abandons one of his grounds at the first

      hearing. Nothing in the traditions of habeas corpus requires the federal

      courts to tolerate needless piecemeal litigation, or to entertain

      collateral proceedings whose only purpose is to vex, harass, or delay.(55)

      In 1966, Congress amended [sections] 2244, accounting for the distinction drawn by the Court in Sanders.(56) Congress wanted to "introduc[e] a greater degree of finality of judgments in habeas corpus proceedings."(57) Subsection (b) of the amended statute addressed the second situation involving successive petitions, the situation which the Sanders Court found to be outside the prior statute's coverage.(58) The amended statute allowed a court to dismiss at its discretion this type of successive petition unless the petitioner alleged a new ground for relief and had not intentionally withheld the new ground or "otherwise abused the writ."(59) If the petitioner met these conditions, the court...

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