The writ of habeas corpus is typically used to test the legality of a prisoners detention to bring his corpus (or body) before a court for adjudication. This course will examine three different forms of the common law writ of habeas corpus: (1) the writ as a check on Executive detentions; (2) the writ as a post-conviction remedy for illegal detentions resulting from flawed federal criminal convictions; and (3) the writ as a post-conviction remedy for illegal detentions resulting from flawed state criminal convictions. Although we will discuss all three forms, the course will focus primarily on the use of the Great Writ as a means of challenging state criminal convictions in federal courts. Providing defendants with an opportunity to relitigate federal claims in federal courts is thought to protect against potential state court bias and ensure that those in prison are actually guilty of the offenses for which they have been incarcerated. Balanced against the desire to ensure fairness, however, are concerns about federalism, finality, and conservation of judicial resources. Consequently, for each expansion of the writ's scope to increase fairness to defendants, there has been a concomitant contraction elsewhere. These contractions often take the form of procedural barriers to federal court review including statutes of limitations, harmless error doctrines, exhaustion and procedural default requirements, retroactivity limitations, and successive petition bans. This course will consider the purpose of the Great Writ and examine the ways in which the courts and legislatures have expanded and contracted the writ over time.
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