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June 1, 2020

SCOTUS, voting 7-2, limits reach of AEDPA's limit on second habeas petitions in Bannister v. Davis

The Supreme Court handed down a number of opinions this morning, and habeas/criminal procedure fans — or civil procedure fans since habeas actions are technically civil actions — will be excited to see one of the group is Bannister v. Davis, No. 18–6943 (S. Ct. June 1, 2020) (available here).  The opinion in Bannister is a notable procedural win for habeas petitioners, and I am intrigued and a bit surprised the ruling came down 7-2 given how long the opinions took to be issued (the case had been argued in December 2019).  The opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Kagan, and it starts and ends this way:

A state prisoner is entitled to one fair opportunity to seek federal habeas relief from his conviction.  But he may not usually make a “second or successive habeas corpus application.” 28 U.S.C. §2244(b).  The question here is whether a motion brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) to alter or amend a habeas court’s judgment qualifies as such a successive petition.  We hold it does not.  A Rule 59(e) motion is instead part and parcel of the first habeas proceeding....

Our holding means that the Court of Appeals should not have dismissed Banister’s appeal as untimely.  Banister properly brought a Rule 59(e) motion in the District Court.  As noted earlier, the 30-day appeals clock runs from the disposition of such a motion, rather than from the initial entry of judgment.  See supra, at 3.  And Banister filed his notice of appeal within that time. The Fifth Circuit reached a contrary conclusion because it thought that Banister’s motion was really a second or successive habeas application, and so did not reset the appeals clock. For all the reasons we have given, that understanding of a Rule 59(e) motion is wrong. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Alito pens a dissent that is joined by Justice Thomas.  This dissent, intriguingly, runs the same length as the opinion for the Court, and here are excerpts from how it starts and ends:

If Banister had labeled this motion what it was in substance — another habeas petition — it would have been summarily dismissed under 28 U. S. C. §2244(b)(1).  If he had labeled it a motion for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), it would also have been subject to dismissal under our decision in Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524 (2005). Instead, he gave it a different label, styling it as a motion to alter the judgment under Rule 59(e), and the Court now holds this label makes all the difference.

The question in this case is whether a state prisoner can evade the federal habeas statute’s restrictions on second or successive habeas petitions by affixing a Rule 59(e) label. The answer follows from our decision in Gonzalez, and the answer is no.  If 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....

I would hold that a Rule 59(e) motion that constitutes a second or successive habeas petition is subject to §2244(b) and that such a motion does not toll the time to appeal.  I therefore conclude that the Fifth Circuit was correct to dismiss Banister’s untimely appeal.  Because the Court holds to the contrary, I respectfully dissent.

June 1, 2020 at 10:27 AM | Permalink


Relatively narrow decision concerning a fairly technical procedural rule. I agree with the majority that this motion very much fits in line with it being part of the original hearing and not a new hearing or collateral attack. On the other hand, as a plain English term, it is a successive motion. The practical effect is you have 28 days to say "I think you misunderstood my argument or the law" and that's about it so I don't see this as undermining AEDPA at all, but I can see Judges having a problem with Habeas petitions in the first place having a problem with this one.

Posted by: Erik M | Jun 1, 2020 12:16:20 PM

You also have 28 days to say, "Judge you entirely overlooked piece of evidence X, and you failed to address the case of Doe v.Doe which is dispositive." Banister is actually a very important decision and will help habeas petitioenrs, who, for sure, need all the help they can get. And to thing it started with Mr. Bannister himself who recognized the issue in his pro se petition!

Posted by: Michael R Levine | Jun 1, 2020 5:39:50 PM

As someone who handled from the state side for about five years, I never saw Rule 59 motions as a big problem that extended the case. Most judges were rather quick to deny the ones that merely restated the argument from the initial petition/reply. I can only think of two or three (out of over 500) that were granted and most involved something significant that was overlooked in the initial decision. (For example, I had one case in which the pleadings were filed prior to Martinez involving a significant defaulted claim. The original decision failed to address whether -- under Martinez -- there was cause excusing the default.)

While a Rule 59 motion is a "successive motion," the statutory language is successive "application." Which sets up the question of what pleadings are part of the original application. I think the key fact is that, if the Supreme Court had treated a Rule 59 motion as similar to a Rule 60 motion (only part of the original application if it notes a procedural flaw in the decision), it would have prolonged the process. As noted above, a meritless Rule 59 motion may delay the filing of an appeal by a month or two (depending on how long it takes the judge to deny the motion). But a meritorious Rule 59 motion avoids an appeal entirely -- allowing the district court to immediately correct its error rather than waiting two years or so for the appellate court to send the case back. If a judge can essentially strike a Rule 59 motion after the time for filing an appeal has expired, inmates with meritorious claims might lose their right to an appeal by filing a Rule 59 motion with the result that inmate's would stop filing them and proceed immediately to the appeal thereby delaying the final resolution of the case which can make it more difficult for the State to retry the inmate if a new trial is ordered. (As in the case that I noted above, in which the significant claim involved jury selection and had nothing to do with the inmate's ultimate guilt or innocence.)

Posted by: tmm | Jun 3, 2020 10:23:47 AM

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