Successive or Amended Habeas Petition?

Sometimes, it’s nice to be pro se. I’m not sure the pro se habeas petitioner in Woods v. Carey, case no. 05-55302 (May 13, 2008) would have received the same relief if represented by counsel when he filed a second habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 while his first was pending in the district court. Both petitions asserted deprivation of rights in connection with his parole eligibility and procedures, and the district court dismissed the second petition as an impermissible “successive” petition. The court of appeals reverses with instructions to contstrue the later petition as a motion for leave to amend the original petition.

The Ninth first lays out the statutory scheme applicable to federal habeas petitions by state prisoners:

“Generally, a new petition is ‘second or successive’ if it raises claims that were or could have been adjudicated on their merits in an earlier petition.” Cooper v. Calderon, 274 F.3d 1270, 1273 (9th Cir. 2001). The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) implemented a gatekeeper function, requiring that successive § 2254 petitions be dismissed unless they meet one of the exceptions outlined in 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(2). Under that provision, a successive application is permissible only if it rests on a new rule of constitutional law, facts that were previously unavailable, or facts that would be sufficient to show constitutional error in the petitioner’s conviction. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(2). Even if a petitioner can demonstrate that he qualifies for one of these exceptions, he must seek authorization from the court of appeals before filing his new petition with the district court. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(3).

Woods never obtained authorization for the second petition, but argued that the Ninth should adopt the rule in the Second Circuit, which construes subsequent petitions filed while one or more are still pending as motions for leave to amend the original petition. The Second adopted the rule in part because of the “tension between the liberal amendment policy embodied in Fed. R. Civ. P. 15 . . . and the AEDPA’s restrictions on bringing successive collateral attacks to criminal conviction.” The Second reconciled that tension in favor of treating the later petition as a motion to amend — even where the earlier petitions were on appeal when the latest was filed — because it saw the risk of abuse as minimal, since amendment is subject to the district court’s discretion, putting it in a position to thwart abusive tactics.

The Ninth finds this rationale particularly persuasive as to pro se petitioners:

The Second Circuit’s logic applies with special force in the context of pro se litigants. “A document filed pro se is ‘to be liberally construed,’ and a ‘pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.’ ” [Citations.]. If Woods had the benefit of counsel at the time he filed the instant petition, that counsel certainly would have filed the 2004 claims as an amendment to the 2003 petition. Accordingly, we follow the persuasive reasoning of the Second Circuit[.]

(Emphasis added.)

This explanation leaves open the possibility that the Ninth might not be so generous in cases of represented petitioners, though I think it should be (and I am betting that the Second Circuit petitioners were represented, which would also support similar treatment for represented petitioners). The tension between liberality of amendment and the restrictions in the AEDPA on successive petitiones exists regardless of whether the petitioner is represented or not. Still, I hope the court is correct that attorneys will “certainly” file additional claims as amendments, rather than risk exploitation of the apparent loophole left by the Ninth’s logic in Woods.