What Counts as an Original Habeas Petition in the Supreme Court?

On Monday, the Supreme Court took the highly unusual step of (sort of) granting an "original" habeas corpus petition, i.e., a petition filed directly with the SCOTUS rather than coming up through the lower federal courts. The Court sent the case of Troy Davis to a federal district court in Georgia for an evidentiary hearing into whether Davis, who is on death row, is innocent of the murder for which he was convicted. (Most of the key witnesses have recanted.) The Court's terse order produced a sharp disagreement between Justices Scalia and Thomas, who dissented from it (here), and Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer, who endorsed it (here). I'll have a FindLaw column up on the case next week, but for now I want to flag one special peculiarity of the case. (The case is described ably here.)

In the course of responding to Justice Scalia's claim that one of the limitations of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") would bar any legal relief for Davis, Justice Stevens says that AEDPA might not even apply to original petitions in the Supreme Court. In my column, I'll analyze this hypothesis, but here I want to note the oddity of even characterizing what the district court will be doing as considering a case falling within the Supreme Court's original habeas jurisdiction.

To see the problem and Justice Stevens's potential circumvention of it, we need to understand where the Court normally gets the authority to issue writs of habeas corpus in the first place. After all, Marbury v. Madison says that Congress cannot expand the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, and issuing habeas petitions is not one of the categories of original jurisdiction listed in Article III. One solution favored by some academics is to say that individual Supreme Court Justices could grant habeas petitions without offending Marbury. That's not as much of a gimmick as it sounds, given that in the early Republic, individual Justices frequently acted in a non-S Ct capacity when riding Circuit. The problem is that the current habeas statute has a separate provision conferring jurisdiction on individual Justices in addition to the provision conferring jurisdiction on the Court as a whole. So we must revert to the classical answer, which was given by CJ John Marshall in 1807 in Ex Parte Bollman: When the Supreme Court grants a habeas petition, it is exercising appellate jurisdiction, not original jurisdiction, at least as far as Article III is concerned.

Now we have to ask what the relationship is between the S Ct and the district court in Davis. In order for the evidentiary hearing that will be conducted within the district court to count as part of an original petition case in the Supreme Court, we need to say that for Article III purposes the SCOTUS is exercising appellate jurisdiction over the district court (or perhaps over the Georgia state courts, but that would fly in the face of numerous S Ct statements denying that federal habeas is an "appeal" from the state courts), while for statutory purposes, the district court is a kind of adjunct of the Supreme Court, much in the way that district courts utilize magistrates and the Supreme Court itself utilizes special masters in the boundary dispute cases that fall within its (Article III) original jurisdiction. I suppose that the Supremes have sufficient supervisory power over district judges to enlist them as special masters or their equivalents. But if so, the Davis order is still odd in that it nowhere states that the district court is being used as anything other than a district court.

Posted by Mike Dorf