Volume 60
Issue 1
Winter '23

Expanding Cause: How Federal Courts Should Address Severe Psychiatric Impairments That Impact State Post-Conviction Review

Written By: Joshua D. Marcin

Abstract

 A state prisoner must comply with state procedural rules to obtain federal judicial review of one’s detention or sentence of death, but what if a severe psychiatric impairment or illness prevents the prisoner—or one’s counsel—from complying with those rules? Federal habeas courts have not agreed on whether this type of impairment can excuse a procedural default. This Article argues that courts refusing to recognize severe psychiatric impairments as valid excuses for defaults are asking the wrong questions, like whether an impairment is “external to the petitioner.” Courts instead should ask whether an impairment impeded a petitioner’s ability to comply with a procedural rule or caused a breakdown in an attorney-client relationship. Declining to recognize severe impairments as valid excuses in these circumstances is out of step with the Supreme Court’s guidance and creates hard-to-justify inconsistencies with the principles underlying procedural default and other areas of habeas law. 

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