504 U.S. 1 (1992), argued 15 Jan. 1992, decided 4 May 1992 by vote of 5 to 4; White for the Court, O’Connor in dissent, joined by Blackmun, Stevens, and Kennedy, and Kennedy in a separate dissent.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s the Supreme Court consistently narrowed the opportunities for state prisoners to bring constitutional challenges either to their convictions or sentences in federal courts through petitions of habeas corpus. Keeney marked an important milestone in that process, since it overturned a precedent favorable to petitioners from the Warren Court era. In Townsend v. Swain (1963), Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a 5 to 4 majority, held that a state prisoner could seek a writ of habeas corpus to secure a hearing in federal court if the material facts were not adequately developed at the state-court hearing. The majority made clear that the failure of defense counsel to represent a client adequately would not jeopardize a prisoner's eventual right to be heard in federal court. The only exception was a defendant that purposefully bypassed the state appeals system. One of the dissenters in that case was Justice Byron R. White, the same justice who wrote the majority opinion in Keeney overturning Townsend.
Keeney involved an Oregon inmate whose lawyer had failed to present evidence crucial to his appeal in state court. The critical fact in the case involved a poorly done Spanish translation of the plea agreement that the defendant signed, a translation so bad that he literally did not know what he was agreeing to. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered a habeas corpus hearing, but the state of Oregon appealed.
Justice White found for the state of Oregon. He held that a new standard should be imposed, one that did away with the “deliberate bypass” rule of Townsend and replaced it with a requirement that a state inmate demonstrate “cause.” Under existing high court rulings, moreover, attorney error was not a sufficient ground for asserting cause.
The dissenters argued that the petition should have been heard, since it was properly presented. Moreover, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took the unusual step of advising lower federal court judges that there were ways to get around White's majority opinion and that they should use them. Nonetheless, the Court's actions constituted a further tightening of access to the federal courts through habeas corpus. Critics complained that doing so raised questions of constitutional fairness, since federal judges between 1976 and 1991 overturned more than 40 percent of all the death penalty cases they reviewed through habeas petitions.
Kermit L. Hall