372 U.S. 391 (1963), argued 7–8 Jan. 1963, decided by vote of 6 to 3; Brennan for the Court, Harlan, Clark, and Stewart in dissent. The relationship between the national government and the states is the central problem of American federalism. This is illustrated in examining how the state and federal courts interact with respect to the administration of criminal justice. The availability of federal habeas corpus to persons who have been convicted of crime in state courts is such an issue.
Since the enactment of the Judiciary Act of 1789, all federal courts have been authorized to grant writs of habeas corpus to federal prisoners. Not until the adoption of the Judiciary Act of 1867, however, was federal habeas corpus made available to state as well as federal prisoners in all cases where a violation of a federal right was alleged.
Fay v. Noia is a notable example of the expansion of the rights of state prisoners through a federal habeas corpus proceeding. Noia had been convicted in a New York court of a felony murder. The question arose whether he could gain federal habeas corpus relief after he was denied state post-conviction relief because the time had lapsed for a review by a state appellate court. The bone of contention was the admissibility of a confession that in the case of two confederates had been held to have been coerced. As construed by the Supreme Court, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the use in any state court of coerced confessions.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied Noia relief, holding that under the federal habeas corpus statute a state prisoner could be granted the writ only if the applicant had exhaust-ed the remedies available in the state courts. The federal court of appeals reversed the district court, holding that “exceptional circumstances” were present that excused compliance with the state rule relating to appeals. This court held that a state remedy was no longer available to Noia at the time the federal habeas proceeding was commenced; the state had conceded that Noia's confession had been coerced, relying entirely on his failure to take a timely appeal from his original conviction to a state appellate court.
The Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals. The Court majority refused to apply the rule that state procedural defaults constitute an adequate and independent state ground for barring a direct review by the Supreme Court of the original conviction. It held that the rule relating to direct review should not be extended to limit the power granted to federal courts by the federal habeas corpus statute. In other words, because of the crucial importance of the writ of habeas corpus, Noia's failure to make a timely appeal in the state courts was not an intelligent and understanding waiver of his right to seek federal relief.
Justice William Brennan asserted that there is no higher duty than to maintain unimpaired the right to seek the writ, whose “root principle is that in a civilized society, government must always be accountable to the judiciary for a man's imprisonment … ” (p. 402).