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Who Has the Body? The Paths to Habeas Corpus Reform

NCJ Number
The Prison Journal Volume: 84 Issue: 3 Dated: September 2004 Pages: 317-339
Cary Federman
Rosemary L. Gido
Date Published
September 2004
23 pages
This article reviews the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and the various paths that led to the AEDPA focusing on the limiting of habeas corpus petitions in the area of the death penalty.
In 1996, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) granting Federal authorities greater powers to investigate domestic terrorist threats, provide justice for victims, and limit the ability of State prisoners, particularly those on death row, to get Federal habeas corpus relief. Habeas corpus is the principal means by which State prisoners attack the constitutionality of their convictions in Federal courts. This article places the AEDPA within a political and historical framework that describes the effort by the Supreme Court and other interested parties to restrict prisoners' access to the Federal courts by way of habeas corpus. A primary issue of concern is how an act of terrorism against the United States provides an opportunity for Congress to restrict death row prisoners from obtaining habeas corpus review. The article analyzes three attempts to limit Federal habeas corpus: the Reagan Administration's Department of Justice (DOJ), the Powell Committee, and the American Bar Association (ABA). Examining these provides a way to understand the sequence of events leading up to the AEDPA and explain how Congress' policy choices in 1996 had been narrowed through time by Supreme Court rulings and law-and-order interest groups both within Congress and without. In various forms, all three cases analyzed made their way into the AEDPA of 1996. Studying habeas corpus throughout the years highlights the plurality of jurisdictional powers that struggle for control of the movement of prisoners and underscores the problem of administering justice in a Federal republic. In attempting to understand capital punishment jurisprudence, there is the need to pay closer attention to the Supreme Court's habeas corpus decisions and the long-term effects of Congress' activity and inactivity on prisoners' rights claims. References