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Prisoners and Habeas Privileges Under the Fourteenth Amendment

Posted by on Friday, May 16, 2014 in Articles, Volume 67, Volume 67, Number 3.

Prisoners and Habeas Privileges Under the Fourteenth Amendment

The U.S. Reports contain no answer to a million-­dollar question: are state prisoners constitutionally entitled to a federal habeas forum? The Supreme Court has consistently ducked the basic constitutional issue, and academic work on the question idles on familiar themes.

The strongest existing argument that state prisoners are constitutionally entitled to a federal habeas forum involves a theory of incorporation under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. I provide a new and different account: specifically, that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause (“PI Clause”) guarantees a habeas privilege as a feature of national citizenship, and that the corresponding habeas power reaches state custody.

We now know that the common-­law habeas writ did not evolve primarily as a security for individual liberty, but in service of judicial power. In Boumediene v. Bush, the Supreme Court blessed this revised writ history. This Article is the second entry in a series exploring the legal implications of those revisions. In the first article, A Constitutional Theory of Habeas Power, 99 VA. L. REV. 743 (2013), I argued that Article III judicial power secured for federal prisoners the habeas privilege identified in the Suspension Clause. The question that I reserved there␣and that I answer here␣was whether anything about Reconstruction changed the operation of the habeas guarantee embedded in the original Articles of Constitution.

The answer, in short, is yes. The Fourteenth Amendment PI Clause–not the Due Process Clause–expanded the constitutionally protected scope of the federal habeas privilege. The PI Clause yokes the habeas privilege to national citizenship, the rights of which neither the federal government nor states may abridge. And if, as I have argued, a federally protected habeas privilege requires a corresponding federal habeas power, then the PI Clause entitles state prisoners to a federal habeas forum.
The first-­order question I answer here–whether the Constitution guarantees a state-­prisoner privilege–is logically antecedent to second-­ and third-­order questions about the privilege’s scope. Because the Constitution entitles state prisoners to a federal habeas forum, the legal community ought to hit reset on basic assumptions about Congressional power to restrict the habeas remedy, particularly in postconviction cases.