SWAIN V. PRESSLEY, 430 U. S. 372 (1977)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Swain v. Pressley, 430 U.S. 372 (1977)

Swain v. Pressley

No. 75-811

Argued January 19, 1977

Decided March 22, 1977

430 U.S. 372


Respondent, in custody pursuant to a sentence imposed by the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, applied in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for a writ of habeas corpus seeking a review of the constitutionality of the proceedings that led to his conviction and sentence. The District Court dismissed the application on the basis of D.C.Code Ann. § 23-110(g) (1973), which provides that an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a prisoner authorized to apply for collateral relief by motion in the Superior Court pursuant to the statute

"shall not be entertained by the Superior Court or by any Federal or State court if it appears that the applicant has failed to make a motion for relief under this section or that the Superior Court has denied him relief. . . ."

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed. Doubting the constitutionality of the statutory curtailment of the District Court's jurisdiction to issue writs of habeas corpus, the court construed the statute as merely requiring the exhaustion of local remedies before a habeas corpus petition could be filed in the District Court, and concluded that respondent had exhausted those remedies.


1. Section 23-110(g) prohibits the District Court from entertaining respondent's post-conviction application for a writ of habeas corpus. The statute expressly covers the situation in which the applicant has exhausted his local remedies, and requires that the Federal District Court not entertain the habeas application in such a case. Moreover, the language of § 23-110(g) was deliberately patterned after 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which created a new post-conviction remedy in sentencing district courts, and provided that a habeas corpus petition may not be entertained elsewhere; § 23-110(g) was plainly intended to achieve the parallel result in the District of Columbia by requiring collateral review of convictions from the Superior Court to be heard in that court. Pp. 430 U. S. 377-378.

2. Section 23-110(g) does not suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in violation of Art. I, § 9, cl. 2, of the Constitution. Pp. 430 U. S. 379-384.

Page 430 U. S. 373

(a) The final clause of § 2110(g), which allows a Federal District Court to entertain a habeas corpus application if it "appears that the remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of [the applicant's] detention," avoids any serious question about the statute's constitutionality. The substitution of a new collateral remedy that is neither inadequate nor ineffective does not constitute a suspension of the writ. Cf. United States v. Hayman, 342 U. S. 205, 342 U. S. 223. P. 430 U. S. 381.

(b) The collateral relief available in the Superior Court is neither ineffective nor inadequate simply because the judges of that court lack the protections of Art. III judges (life tenure and salary protection), for they must be presumed competent to decide all constitutional and other issues that routinely arise in criminal cases. Pp. 430 U. S. 381-383.

169 U.S.App.D.C. 319, 515 F.2d 1290, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined, and in Part I of which BURGER, C.J.,and BLACKMUN and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 430 U. S. 384. BURGER, C.J.,filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 430 U. S. 384.

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