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SCOTUS Holds AEDPA’s Restrictions on Habeas Relief Trump Federal Courts’ Authority Under All Writs Act

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS” or “Court”) held that a federal court’s  transportation order permitting a prisoner to seek out new evidence pursuant to the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651, which authorizes federal courts to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdiction and agreeable to the usages and principles of law,” is not “necessary or appropriate in aid of” where the prisoner fails to show that the evidence sought would be admissible in relation to a particular claim for relief.

Almost 20 years ago, in 2003, Raymond Twyford filed a federal habeas petition, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his murder conviction and death sentence imposed by an Ohio court. He claimed ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) based on his lawyer’s failure to present evidence of an old head injury he suffered as a teen that left him “unable to make rational and voluntary choices” that led to the crime. This was a claim that he had unsuccessfully raised in the state post-conviction courts before heading to federal court.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, however, took 14 years to rule on Twyford’s motion, eventually allowing some his IAC claims to proceed. He then moved for an order to compel the State to transport him to The Ohio State University Medical Center for testing and brain scans to support his habeas claims. He offered a neurologist’s report that the scans were needed to prove his claim; the report said it was “plausible” these tests were “likely to reveal evidence in support” of his claims.

The district court granted Twyford’s motion, invoking the All Writs Act, and the State appealed. The Sixth Circuit agreed that the tests would produce evidence to further Twyford’s claims and further ruled that it wasn’t necessary, at this stage, for Twyford to prove that the evidence would be “admissible” in court to pursue his claims. SCOTUS then agreed to hear the State’s appeal and reversed.

The issue before SCOTUS was whether the district court’s order pursuant to the All Writs Act is “necessary or appropriate in aid of” the resolution of Twyford’s habeas case. To answer this question, the Court turned to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (“AEDPA”) restrictions on introducing new evidence in a federal habeas case.

A federal court may not grant habeas relief to a state prisoner on a factual issue unless the state court’s decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” §2254(d)(2). SCOTUS has held that this determination by the federal court is limited to only the evidence and the record that was before the state court. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170 (2011).

But if a petitioner can show that a claim relies on (1) “new” and “previously unavailable” “rule of constitutional law” made retroactively
applicable by SCOTUS or (2) “a factual predicate that could not have been previously discovered through the exercise of due diligence,” the federal court may allow new evidence in a habeas case. § 2254(e)(2). In the present case, the second exception is at issue. But even if that exception is satisfied, the prisoner is required to also show that the sought-after evidence would demonstrate “by clear and convincing evidence” that “no reasonable factfinder” would have convicted him of the charged crime. § 2254(e)(2)(B).

SCOTUS explained that while state prisoners may on occasion be able to submit new evidence in federal court, “AEDPA’s statutory scheme is designed to strongly discourage them from doing so.” Cullen.  

SCOTUS reiterated in Twyford’s case that a federal habeas court is not an “alternate forum” for trying facts the petitioner failed to successfully argue in state court. See Michael v. Williams, 529 U.S. 420 (2000) (“Federal courts sitting in habeas are not an alternative forum for trying facts and issues which a prisoner made insufficient effort to pursue in state proceedings.”). And, citing the importance of finality of state convictions, the Court explained that a federal court may never needlessly prolong a habeas case, so courts are required to, “before facilitating the development of new evidence, determine that it could be legally considered in the prisoner’s case.” See Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, 142 S. Ct. 1718 (2022). Consequently, a court “must, consistent with AEDPA, determine at the outset whether the new evidence sought could be lawfully considered,” the Court stated. 

The district court failed to do this in Twyford’s case, the Court determined, adding that invoking the All Writs Act does not bypass the AEDPA’s evidentiary standards. See Pennsylvania Bureau of Correction v. United States Marshals Service, 474 U.S. 34 (1985) (while the All Writs Act “empowers federal court to fashion extraordinary remedies when the need arises, it does not authorize them to issue ad hoc writs whenever compliance with statutory procedures appears inconvenient or less appropriate.”). The All Writs Act authorizes a federal court to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” § 1651(a). While the All Writs Act provides broad authority to the courts, the exercise of such authority must nevertheless comport with the procedures and restrictions set forth in the AEDPA, according to the Court.

The AEDPA provides the governing rules for federal habeas proceedings, and SCOTUS’ precedents explain that a district court must consider that statute’s requirements before facilitating the development of new evidence. Similarly, a writ seeking new evidence would not be “necessary or appropriate in aid of” a federal habeas court’s jurisdiction, as all orders issued under the All Writs Act must be, if it enables a prisoner to fish for unusable evidence, in the hope that it could potentially undermine his conviction in some manner. The Court reiterated that in every habeas case, “the court must be guided by the general principles underlying our habeas corpus jurisprudence.” Calderon v. Thompson, 523 U.S. 538 (1998).

Applying these principles, the Court identified three critical errors in the district court’s granting Twyford’s motion for transportation and medical testing to obtain the evidence he allegedly needed for his habeas claims. First, the Court said that neither the district court nor the Sixth Circuit determined how the desired newly developed evidence could assist Twyford’s cause. Further, his motion “sheds no light on how he might persuade a court to consider the results of his testing, given the limitations AEDPA imposes on presenting new evidence,” the Court noted. He argued only that it’s “plausible” the testing would likely reveal evidence in support if his claims. “Twyford never explained how the results of the neurological testing could be admissible in his habeas proceeding,” the Court pointed out.

Second, Twyford never provided reasons why the evidence would meet the strict standard under §2254(e)(2) to allow new evidence that wasn’t presented in the state court. The Court reiterated that “if 2254(e)(2) applies and the prisoner cannot meet the statute’s standards for admitting new merits evidence, it serves no purpose to develop such evidence just to access cause and prejudice.” See Shinn.

Third, Twyford did not present certain claims to the state court and failed to provide any reason for the federal court to excuse this procedural default. SCOTUS has held that a habeas claim presented to a federal court that was not presented in state court must be dismissed, unless the petitioner shows “cause to excuse his failure to comply with the state procedural rule and actual prejudice resulting from the alleged constitutional violation.” Davila v. Davis, 137 S. Ct. 2058 (2017). In fact, Twyford failed to even identify the defaulted claims he hoped the evidence would “resurrect” in federal court, the Court said, “nor did he explain how the testing would matter to his ability to do so.” Thus, the Court concluded that the district court erred in ordering Twyford’s transfer in order to gather evidence that he failed to establish would be admissible.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s judgment. See: Shoop v. Twyford, 142 S. Ct. 2037 (2022).

Writer’s note: The Supreme Court seems to be intent lately to limit the authority of federal courts in granting habeas relief to prisoners. With the Court’s recent holding that the “traditional role” of habeas is only to challenge a court’s jurisdiction over a case and that it is never to allow correction of even the most fundamental errors (like wrongful imprisonment), I’m wondering whether the AEDPA may be the only thing saving the habeas remedy as we know it. The laws that Congress put in place under the AEDPA to limit federal habeas corpus now appear to be preventing the Supreme Court from gutting it entirely, because Congress unwittingly codified the modern function of habeas corpus in the AEDPA. As limiting as the AEDPA may be, it’s much broader than any restrictions that the current majority of Justices on the Supreme Court would seem to impose on federal habeas relief. 

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Related legal cases

Shoop v. Twyford

Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez



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