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What is Federal Habeas Corpus?

By Felicia Dye
Updated May 17, 2024
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In the United States, federal habeas corpus refers to a type of case review power. This legal provision enables federal courts to determine whether a person’s incarceration is legal. Criminals tend to use this measure as a last resort of appeal. Under modern law, federal courts can exercise jurisdiction over both federal and state prisoners, but this was not always the case. A one-year statute of limitations exists for filing such a petition.

Habeas corpus is a Latin term meaning you have the body. Federal habeas corpus grants federal courts the power to review the cases of convicts who claim that their incarceration is unjust. Such petitions are normally used during the appellate process. Criminals tend to resort to this means of legal review after they have exhausted other appellate procedures. When an individual files a petition, he essentially argues that an authority is unjustly holding his body and he is calling upon a federal court to deem it improper.

In order for action to be taken on such a petition, the petitioner must show that some type of error or injustice has occurred. When federal habeas corpus is used to review state cases, the federal courts do not exercise unlimited power. Rather, they usually strictly review whether a person’s federal constitutional rights have been violated.

The filing of a federal habeas corpus petition is subject to time limits. Individuals are generally given one year to file. This period does not always begin at the same point. For example, if a prisoner is in the midst of a state review process, the statute of limitations for the federal habeas corpus would be one year after the conclusion of the state proceedings. Likewise, if a prisoner had been prevented from filing a petition, she would be granted a year from the date that the restriction was removed.

The exact origin of modern federal habeas corpus is a subject of debate. These legal proceedings are often credited as extending from common law. Although it is true that writs of habeas corpus were used in England and in early American colonies, it is believed that the concept dates back much further. Evidence has been found to suggest that it was used as early as the 13th century.

In the U.S., Congress implemented federal habeas corpus in 1789. At this time, however, the provision only granted federal courts authority over federal prisoners. The foundation for the modern proceedings, which allow federal courts to review the cases of state prisoners, was laid in the 19th century. Although the federal government had long had this reviewing power, it was not until the mid-20th century that the U.S. Supreme Court deemed that states are indeed bound by these federal decisions.

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