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Opinion analysis: Justices reaffirm distinction between first and second habeas petitions

One of the most significant changes to federal post-conviction habeas review that Congress adopted in 1996 in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was the dramatic curtailment of second-or-successive habeas suits by which state and federal prisoners can challenge their confinement. But when a prisoner moves to amend a district court judgment denying his first federal habeas petition, is that still part of the first proceeding, or is that the second bite at the apple that Congress all but eliminated 24 years ago? In its 7-2 ruling on Monday in Banister v. Davis, the Supreme Court held that it is the former—and that a motion to alter or amend a judgment under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is part of the underlying proceeding for purposes of AEDPA. Although the ruling is not likely to stand as one of the term’s more significant decisions, the opposite result—for which Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito argued in dissent—could have had sweeping ramifications.

As I noted in previewing the oral argument, Gregory Dean Banister is a Texas prisoner who, through a federal habeas petition filed pro se, or without the assistance of counsel, principally sought to challenge the ineffective assistance of his trial counsel. After the district court ruled against him, Banister filed a timely motion to amend the judgment under Rule 59(e), raising no new claims but instead disputing the district court’s analysis of his ineffective-assistance claims. The district court denied the motion on the merits, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that it could not even issue a certificate of appealability because the statute of limitations had expired—based on its conclusion that the clock ran from when the district court denied Banister’s habeas petition, not its later ruling denying his Rule 59(e) motion. This was so, the court of appeals concluded, because the Rule 59(e) motion was properly understood as a second-or-successive petition—a filing that doesn’t suspend the one-year statute of limitations.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan disagreed. Noting that “second or successive” is a “‘term of art,’” she wrote that a Rule 59(e) motion to amend the judgment of a first habeas petition is not properly understood as second or successive in light of both historical precedents and AEDPA’s statutory purpose. She explained that there is only one pre-AEDPA precedent in which a federal court appeared to treat a Rule 59(e) motion as an “abuse of the writ,” and that “[i]n every other case, courts resolved Rule 59(e) motions on the merits—and without any comment about repetitive litigation,” reinforcing the view that a motion to amend the judgment is “part and parcel” of the original proceeding, rather than a new, distinct matter. As for statutory purpose, not only did Congress in 1996 not change the definition of “second or successive,” but the broader goals of AEDPA—making habeas proceedings more efficient and eliminating the need for successive applications—are only advanced by allowing motions to amend district court judgments. Kagan concluded that “[s]uch a motion does not enable a prisoner to abuse the habeas process by stringing out his claims over the years. It instead gives the court a brief chance to fix mistakes before its (single) judgment on a (single) habeas application becomes final and thereby triggers the time for appeal.”

In dissent, Alito, joined by Thomas, argued that the majority’s analysis rests almost entirely on labels—and that, had Banister simply styled his Rule 59(e) motion differently, it would have been barred either by AEDPA itself or by the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Gonzalez v. Crosby, which held that motions to seek relief from a federal court’s judgment in a first habeas petition under Rule 60(b) are second-or-successive petitions. For Alito, “[i]f a Rule 59(e) motion asserts a habeas claim, the motion functions as a second or successive habeas petition and should be treated as such.”

In response, Kagan played up the differences between the two rules. In her words:

A Rule 60(b) motion—often distant in time and scope and always giving rise to a separate appeal—attacks an already completed judgment. Its availability threatens serial habeas litigation; indeed, without rules suppressing abuse, a prisoner could bring such a motion endlessly. By contrast, a Rule 59(e) motion is a one-time effort to bring alleged errors in a just-issued decision to a habeas court’s attention, before taking a single appeal. It is a limited continuation of the original proceeding—indeed, a part of producing the final judgment granting or denying habeas relief.

The result, at least for now, is that Banister can again seek a certificate of appealability from the 5th Circuit—which, if it denies such a request, would at least have to do so on the merits. But the opinion is far more important for what it doesn’t do, because a ruling for Texas would have radically circumscribed the ability of state and federal prisoners to bring Rule 59(e) motions—let alone to pursue appeals from the denials of those motions.

Recommended Citation: Steve Vladeck, Opinion analysis: Justices reaffirm distinction between first and second habeas petitions, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 3, 2020, 11:04 AM),