Petitions for Writ of Habeas Corpus: Exhaustion and Procedural Bar

by appealattorneylaw

As I mentioned in my last post on petitions for writ of habeas corpus, petitions have to be timely filed.  In addition to timeliness, petitioners also have to consider the issues of exhaustion and procedural bar.

Exhaustion is a concept based on comity and federalism.  Although the Federal courts are available to consider Federal constitutional questions, the Federal courts do not sit in a strict appellate capacity over the State courts.  Generally, for the exhaustion element to be met, the petitioner must have presented any Federal constitutional claims to the State court, thereby allowing the State court the opportunity to review the claims first.  If the claims have not been presented to the State court, a Federal court may find that the claims have not been exhausted.  In such instance, the Federal court may dismiss the Federal 2254 petition without prejudice, so as to allow the petitioner to present, or exhaust, his claims in State court.  In addition, if a 2254 petition contains both exhausted and unexhausted claims, (otherwise known as a “mixed petition”), the 2254 petition may likewise be dismissed without prejudice.  A good discussion of these principles can be found in Thompson v. Wainwright, 714 F.2d 1495, 1503-1504 (11th Cir. 1983); Snowden v. Singletary, 135 F.3d 732, 736 (11th Cir. 1998); and, Bailey v. Nagle, 172 F.3d 1299 (11th Cir. 1999).

With regard to procedural bar, where a 2254 petitioner has failed to raise his or her Federal claims properly in State court, the Federal court may find that the petitioner is procedurally barred from raising the claims in Federal court, unless a petitioner can make a showing of cause for and actual prejudice from the default, or by establishing a fundamental miscarriage of justice.  See Bailey, 172 F.3d at 1306.  As noted in Bailey, 172 F.3d at 1302-1303, claims are generally procedurally defaulted in two ways: (1) where the State court correctly applies a procedural default principle of state law and determines that the Federal claims are barred; or, (2) where the petitioner never raised the claim in State court, and it is obvious that the unexhausted claim would be procedurally barred based on a State law procedural default.  Where unexhausted claims would be procedurally barred in State court, the Federal court may determine that such claims do not provide a basis for Federal habeas relief.  See Snowden, 135 F.3d at 736.

Nevertheless, where it would be futile for a petitioner to return to State court because procedural defaults bar any right to relief, the Federal court may determine that such futility is an exception to the exhaustion requirement, and decline to dismiss the petition.  See Bailey, 172 F.3d at 1306-1307 (Carnes, J. dissenting).

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