United States Supreme Court
In Townsend v. Sain (1963) the Supreme Court held that a state prisoner could bring a federal habeas corpus action to challenge his state conviction despite his failure to develop a material fact in state proceedings unless it was determined that he had petitioner deliberately bypassed the opportunity to develop the fact in the state courts. In the instant case, the Court reconsiders that position.
Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court.
Respondent is a Cuban immigrant with little education and almost no knowledge of English. In 1984, he was charged with murder arising from the stabbing death of a man who had allegedly attempted to intervene in a confrontation between respondent and his girlfriend in a bar.
Respondent was provided with a defense attorney and interpreter. The attorney recommended to respondent that he plead nolo contendere to first-degree manslaughter. ... Respondent signed a plea form that explained in English the rights he was waiving by entering the plea. The state court held a plea hearing, at which petitioner was represented by counsel and his interpreter. The judge asked the attorney and interpreter if they had explained to respondent the rights in the plea form and the consequences of his plea; they respondent in the affirmative. The judge then explained to respondent, in English, the rights he would waive by his plea, and asked the interpreter to translate. Respondent indicated that he understood his rights and still wished to plead nolo contendere. The judge accepted his plea.
Later, respondent brought a collateral attack on the plea in a state-court proceeding. He alleged his plea had not been knowing and intelligent and therefore was invalid because his translater had not translated accurately and completely for him the mens rea element of manslaughter. He also contended that he did not understand the purposes of the plea form or the plea hearing. He contended that he did not know he was pleading no contest to manslaughter, but rather that he thought he was agreeing to be tried for manslaughter.
After a hearing, the state court dismissed respondent’s petition, finding that respondent was properly served by his trial interpreter and that the interpreter correctly, fully, and accurately translated the communications between respondent and his attorney. The State Court of Appeals affirmed, and the State Supreme Court denied review.
Respondent then entered Federal District Court seeking a writ of habeas corpus. Respondent contended that the material facts concerning the translation were not adequately developed at the state-court hearing, implicating the fifth circumstance of Townsend v Sain … (1963), and sought a federal evidentiary hearing on whether his nolo contendere plea was unconstitutional. The District Court found that the failure to develop the critical facts relevant to his federal claim was attributable to inexcusable neglect and that no evidentiary hearing was required. ... Respondent appealed.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recognized that the alleged failure to translate the mens rea element of first-degree manslaughter, if proved, would be a basis for overturning respondent’s plea, ... and determined that material facts had not been adequately developed in the state postconviction court, id., at 1500, apparently due to the negligence of postconviction counsel. The court held that Townsend v Sain, supra, and Fay v Noia … (1963), required an evidentiary hearing in the District Court unless respondent had deliberately bypassed the orderly procedure of the state courts. Because counsel’s negligent failure to develop the facts did not constitute a deliberate bypass, the Court of Appeals ruled that respondent was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on the question whether the mens rea element of first-degree manslaughter was properly explained to him....
We granted certiorari to decide whether the deliberate by-pass standard is the correct standard for excusing a habeas petitioner’s failure to develop a material fact in state-court proceedings. ...
Because the holding of Townsend v Sain that Fay v Noia’s deliberate bypass standard is applicable in a case like this had not been reversed, it is quite understandable that the Court of Appeals applied that standard in this case. However, in light of more recent decisions of this Court, Townsend’s holding in this respect must be overruled. Fay v Noia was itself a case where the habeas petitioner had not taken advantage of state remedies by failing to appeal -- a procedural default case. Since that time, however, this Court has rejected the deliberate bypass standard in state procedural default cases and has applied instead a standard of cause and prejudice. . . .
Applying the cause-and-prejudice standard in cases like this will obviously contribute to the finality of convictions, for requiring a federal evidentiary hearing solely on the basis of a habeas petitioner’s negligent failure to develop facts in state-court proceedings dramatically increases the opportunities to relitigate a conviction. . . .
Respondent Tamayo-Reyes is entitled to an evidentiary hearing if he can show cause for his failure to develop the facts in state-court proceedings and actual prejudice resulting from that failure. We also adopt the narrow exception to cause-and-prejudice requirement: A habeas petitioner’s failure to develop a claim in state-court proceedings will be excused and a hearing mandated if he can show that a fundamental miscarriage of justice would result from failure to hold a federal evidentiary hearing. ...
The State conceded that a remand to the District Court is appropriate in order to afford respondent the opportunity to bring forward evidence establishing cause and prejudice ... and we agree that the respondent should have that opportunity. Accordingly, the decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the cause is remanded to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Justice O’Connor, with whom Justice Blackmun, Justice Stevens, and Justice Kennedy, join dissenting.
Jose Tamayo-Reyes’ habeas petition stated that because he does not speak English he pleaded nolo contendere to manslaughter without any understanding of what “manslaughter” means. If this assertion is true, his conviction was unconstitutionally obtained, ... and Tamayo-Reyes would be entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. Despite the Court’s attempt to characterize his allegation as a technical quibble -- “his translator had not translated accurately and completely for him the mens rea element of manslaughter,” ... this much is not in dispute. Tamayo-Reyes has alleged a fact that, if true, would entitle him to the relief he seeks. . . .
Jose Tamayo-Reyes alleges that he pleaded nolo contendere to a crime he did not understand. He has exhausted state remedies, has committed no procedural default, has properly presented his claim to a federal district court in his first petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and would be entitled to a hearing under the standard set forth in Townsend. Given that his claim is properly before the district court, I would not cut off his right to prove his claim at a hearing. I respectfully dissent.
Justice Kennedy, dissenting.
By definition, the cases within the ambit of the Court’s holding are confined to those in which the factual record developed in the state-court proceedings is inadequate to resolve the legal question. I should think those cases will be few in number. Townsend v. Sain ... has been the law for almost 30 years and there is no clear evidence that this particular classification of habeas proceedings has burdened the dockets of the federal courts. An in my view, the concept of factual inadequacy comprehends only those petitions with respect to which there is a realistic possibility than an evidentiary hearing will make a difference in the outcome. This serves to narrow the number of cases in a further respect and to insure that they are the ones, as Justice O’Connor points out, in which we have valid concerns with constitutional error.
Our recent decisions in Coleman v Thompson … (1991), McCleskey v Zant … (1991), and Teague v Lane … (1989), serve to protect the integrity of the writ, curbing its abuse and insuring that the legal questions presented are ones which, if resolved against the State, can invalidate a final judgment. So we consider today only those habeas actions which present questions federal courts are bound to decide in order to protect constitutional rights. We ought not to take steps which diminish the likelihood that those courts will base their legal decision on an accurate assessment of the facts. For these reasons and all those set forth by Justice O’Connor, I dissent from the opinion and judgment of the Court.