Federal Habeas Corpus

Elective Course
Course Number: LAW 595
Credits: 2

The federal writ of habeas corpus is a means to attack a state or federal conviction on federal constitutional grounds. Because a habeas case looks back over what happened in the trial stage, on appeal, and in state post-conviction proceedings, it is a useful way to see how lawyers and judges carry out black-letter law in practice, how mistakes are made, and what remedies may be available. It will also allow students to reflect on the big picture of lawyers enacting the criminal justice system.

Students will learn the how and why of state post-conviction and federal habeas procedure, but the heart of the course will be studies of criminal cases litigated in Montana or the Ninth Circuit. The course materials will be drawn from actual cases: transcripts, pleadings, briefs, and opinions from state and federal trial and appellate courts. Students will see an error arise at trial or in a plea colloquy; identify the law at issue; understand in a pragmatic way why the error arises and consider what might have prevented it; assess the nature and extent of prejudice arising from the error; discuss how the error was presented on direct review and/or in state post-conviction proceedings; and see where the chips fall in federal habeas. In addition, the course will explore why federal constitutional guarantees are what they are, and what exactly is guaranteed; why procedures and standards of review are what they are; and why and how “error happens” even though all the lawyers are trying to do the right thing.

This class is designed for second and third students interested in prosecution or defense at the trial or appellate levels. Students headed for clerkships will also benefit. While the class is a criminal elective, students interested in litigation or appellate work on the civil side are welcome too.