Rethinking the Federal Role in State Criminal Justice
Joseph L. Hoffmann, Nancy J. King
This Essay argues that federal habeas review of state criminal cases squanders resources that the federal government should be using to help states reform their systems of defense representation. A 2007 empirical study reveals that federal habeas review is inaccessible to most state prisoners who have been convicted of noncapital crimes and offers no realistic hope of relief for those who do reach federal court. As a means of correcting or deterring constitutional error in noncapital cases, habeas is failing and cannot be fixed. Drawing upon these findings as well as the Supreme Court’s most recent decision applying the Suspension Clause, the authors propose that Congress eliminate federal habeas review of state criminal judgments except for certain claims of actual innocence, claims based on retroactively applicable new rules, or death sentences. The federal government should leave the review of all other state criminal judgments to the state courts and invest, instead, in a new federal initiative to encourage improved state defense services. This approach can deter and correct constitutional error more effectively than any amount of habeas litigation ever could.