HARRIS V. NELSON, 394 U. S. 286 (1969)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Harris v. Nelson, 394 U.S. 286 (1969)

Harris v. Nelson


Argued December 9, 1968

Decided March 24, 1969.

394 U.S. 286


A state prisoner filed a habeas corpus petition in the Federal District Court, alleging that the admission of certain evidence at his trial was improper because the evidence had been seized incident to an arrest based upon information from an unreliable informant. The District Court ordered an evidentiary hearing and the prisoner served on respondent a series of interrogatories pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure designed to establish the informant's unreliability. The District Court overruled respondent's objections that there was no authority for issuance of the interrogatories. Upon respondent's petition for a writ of mandamus or prohibition the Court of Appeals vacated the District Court's order authorizing the interrogatories, on the grounds that Rule 81(a)(2) made the discovery procedures of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure inapplicable to habeas corpus proceedings, and that the statutory provision for interrogatories in habeas corpus proceedings (28 U.S.C. § 2246) did not authorize their use for discovery. Rule 81(a)(2) at that time provided that the Rules did not apply to habeas corpus proceedings

"except to the extent that the practice in such proceedings is not set forth in statutes of the United States and has heretofore conformed to the practice in actions at law or suits in equity."


1. Federal courts upon an appropriate showing must grant evidentiary hearings to petitioners for writs of habeas corpus and "the power of inquiry on federal habeas corpus is plenary." Townsend v. Sain, 372 U. S. 293, 372 U. S. 312 (1963). Pp. 394 U. S. 290-292.

2. The intended scope of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the history of habeas corpus procedure make it clear that Rule 81(a)(2) excludes the application of Rule 33 in habeas corpus proceedings. Pp. 394 U. S. 292-298.

3. Section 2246 of 28 U.S.C. does not authorize interrogatories in habeas corpus proceedings except in limited circumstances not applicable to this case. Pp. 394 U. S. 290, 394 U. S. 296.

Page 394 U. S. 287

4. A district court considering a petition for habeas corpus is free to use or authorize interrogatories or other suitable discovery procedures reasonably fashioned to elicit facts to help the court "dispose of the matter as law and justice require." 28 U.S.C. § 2243. Pp. 394 U. S. 290, 394 U. S. 298-300.

5. Since Congress has not specified comprehensive procedures for securing the facts which federal courts must have to dispose of habeas corpus petitions, the court may fashion appropriate procedures for development of relevant facts, by analogy to existing rules or judicial usages. Their authority to do so is confirmed by the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651. Pp. 394 U. S. 298-300.

378 F.2d 141, reversed and remanded.

Page 394 U. S. 288

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