WASHINGTON -- Overturning a precedent of the Warren Court era, the Supreme Court effectively has shut the door on an important route of federal court appeals for state prison inmates.
By a 5 to 4 vote, the court ruled yesterday that federal courts are no longer obliged to grant a hearing on a state prisoner's challenge to his conviction, even if the prisoner can show that his lawyer had not properly presented crucial facts of the case in a state-court appeal.
Until yesterday, federal courts handling such challenges through habeas corpus petitions from state inmates were required to hold a hearing to evaluate evidence if facts central to the case had not been presented adequately to the state courts.
Since many state prisoners receive inadequate legal assistance in the state courts, these federal court hearings have been a mainstay of the criminal appeals process.
An inmate in the case decided yesterday, a Cuban who spoke no English, asserted that he did not understand what he was agreeing to when he accepted his lawyer's advice and pleaded no contest to a manslaughter charge.
The decision, written by Justice Byron R. White, was the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that have sharply restricted the ability of state prisoners to bring constitutional challenges to their convictions or sentences into federal court through petitions for writs of habeas corpus.
Justice White's opinion provoked a strong dissenting opinion from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, which was notable because Justice O'Connor has been one of the leaders in the court's move to restrict habeas corpus.
This time, she said, the court had gone too far in rejecting not only its own habeas corpus precedent but also the federal habeas corpus law, which Congress amended in 1966 to incorporate the decision the court overruled yesterday.
Until yesterday state prisoners who cleared the procedural hurdles for taking their cases to federal court in the first place were guaranteed a hearing on the facts central to the case if "the material facts were not adequately developed at the state-court hearing."