Fay v. Noia, 84

Citation83 S.Ct. 822,372 U.S. 391,9 L.Ed.2d 837
Decision Date18 March 1963
Docket NumberNo. 84,84
PartiesEdward M. FAY, Warden, et al., Petitioners, v. Charles NOIA
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

William I. Siegel, Brooklyn, N.Y., for petitioners.

Leon B. Polsky, New York City, for respondent.

Joseph J. Rose, Albany, N.Y., for State of New York, as amicus curiae.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents important questions touching the federal habeas corpus jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 2241 et seq., in its relation to state criminal justice. The narrow question is whether the respondent Noia may be granted federal habeas corpus relief from imprisonment under a New York conviction now admitted by the State to rest upon a confession obtained from him in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, after he was denied state post-conviction relief because the coerced confession claim had been decided against him at the trial and Noia had allowed the time for a direct appeal to lapse without seeking review by a state appellate court.

Noia was convicted in 1942 with Santo Caminito and Frank Bonino in the County Court of Kings County, New York, of a felony murder in the shooting and killing of one Hammeroff during the commission of a robbery.

Page 395

The sole evidence against each defendant was his signed confession. Caminito and Bonino, but not Noia, appealed their convictions to the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court. These appeals were unsuccessful, but subsequent legal proceedings resulted in the releases of Caminito and Bonino on findings that their confessions had been coerced and their convictions therefore procured in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.1 Although it has been stipulated that the coercive nature

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of Noia's confession was also established,2 the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York held in Noia's federal habeas corpus proceeding that because of his failure to appeal he must be denied relief under the provision of 28 U.S.C. § 2254 whereby 'An application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted unless it appears that the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State * * *.' 183 F.Supp. 222 (1960).3 The Court of

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Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, one judge dissenting, and ordered that Noia's conviction be set aside and that he be discharged from custody unless given a new trial forthwith. 300 F.2d 345 (1962). The Court of Appeals questioned whether § 2254 barred relief on federal habeas corpus where the applicant had failed to exhaust state remedies no longer available to him at the time the habeas proceeding was commenced (here a direct appeal from the conviction), but held that in any event exceptional circumstances were present which excused compliance with the section. The court also rejected other arguments advanced in support of the proposition that the federal remedy was unavailable to Noia. The first was that the denial of state post-conviction coram nobis relief on the ground of Noia's failure to appeal barred habeas relief because such failure consti-

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tuted an adequate and independent state ground of decision, such that this Court on direct review of the state coram nobis proceedings would have declined to adjudicate the federal questions presented. In rejecting this argument, the court—while expressing the view that '(j)ust as it would be an encroachment on the prerogatives of the state for the Supreme Court upon direct review to disregard the state ground, equally—if not more so—would it be a trespass against the state for a lower federal court, upon a petition for habeas corpus, to disregard the state ground in granting relief to the prisoner,' 300 F.2d at 359—held that the exceptional circumstances excusing compliance with § 2254 also established that Noia's failure to appeal was not a state procedural ground adequate to bar the federal habeas remedy: 'The coincidence of these factors: the undisputed violation of a significant constitutional right, the knowledge of this violation brought home to the federal court at the incipiency of the habeas corpus proceeding so forcibly that the state made no effort to contradict it, and the freedom the relator's codefendants now have by virtue of their vindications of the identical constitutional right leads us to conclude that the state procedural ground, that of a simple failure to appeal, reasonable enough to prevent federal judicial intervention in most cases, is in this particular case unreasonable and inadequate.' 300 F.2d, at 362. The second argument was that Noia's failure to appeal was to be deemed a waiver of his claim that he had been unconstitutionally convicted. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument on the ground that no waiver could be inferred in the circumstances. Id., at 351—352.

We granted certiorari. 369 U.S. 869, 82 S.Ct. 1140, 8 L.Ed.2d 274. We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals but reach that court's result by a different course of reasoning. We hold: (1) Federal courts have power under the federal habeas statute to grant relief despite the applicant's failure to

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have pursued a state remedy not available to him at the time he applies; the doctrine under which state procedural defaults are held to constitute an adequate and independent state law ground barring direct Supreme Court review is not to be extended to limit the power granted the federal courts under the federal habeas statute. (2) Noia's failure to appeal was not a failure to exhaust 'the remedies available in the courts of the State' as required by § 2254; that requirement refers only to a failure to exhaust state remedies still open to the applicant at the time he files his application for habeas corpus in the federal court. (3) Noia's failure to appeal cannot under the circumstances be deemed an intelligent and understanding waiver of his right to appeal such as to justify the withholding of federal habeas corpus relief.


The question has been much mooted under what circumstances, if any, the failure of a state prisoner to comply with a state procedural requirement, as a result of which the state courts decline to pass on the merits of his federal defense, bars subsequent resort to the federal courts for relief on habeas corpus.4 Plainly it is a question that has important implications for federal-state relations in the area of the administration of criminal justice. It cannot be answered without a preliminary inquiry into the historical development of the writ of habeas corpus.

We do well to bear in mind the extraordinary prestige of the Great Writ, habeas corpus ad subjiciendum,5 in

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Anglo-American jurisprudence: 'the most celebrated writ in the English law.' 3 Blackstone Commentaries 129. It is 'a writ antecedent to statute, and throwing its root deep into the genius of our common law * * *. It is perhaps the most important writ known to the constitutional law of England, affording as it does a swift and imperative remedy in all cases of illegal restraint or confinement. It is of immemorial antiquity, an instance of its use occurring in the thirty-third year of Edward I.' Secretary of State for Home Affairs v. O'Brien, (1923) A.C. 603, 609 (H.L.). Received into our own law in the colonial period,6 given explicit recognition in the Federal Constitution, Art. I, § 9, cl. 2,7 incorporated in the first grant of federal court jurisdiction, Act of September 24, 1789, c. 20, § 14, 1 Stat. 81—82, habeas corpus was early confirmed by Chief Justice John Marshall to be a 'great constitutional privilege.' Ex parte Bollman and Swartwout, 4 Cranch 75, 95, 2 L.Ed. 554. Only two Terms ago this Court had occasion to reaffirm the high place of the writ in our jurisprudence: 'We repeat what has been so truly said of the federal writ: 'there is no higher duty than to maintain it unimpaired,' Bowen v. Johnston, 1939, 306 U.S. 19, 26, 59 S.Ct. 442, 446, 83 L.Ed. 455, and unsuspended, save only in the cases specified in our Constitution.' Smith v. Bennett, 365 U.S. 708, 713, 81 S.Ct. 895, 898, 6 L.Ed.2d 39.

These are not extravagant expressions. Behind them may be discerned the unceasing contest between personal

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liberty and government oppression. It is no accident that habeas corpus has time and again played a central role in national crises, wherein the claims of order and of liberty clash most acutely, not only in England in the seventeenth century,8 but also in America from our very beginnings, and today.9 Although in form the Great Writ is simply a mode of procedure, its history is inextricably intertwined with the growth of fundamental rights of personal liberty. For its function has been to provide a prompt and efficacious remedy for whatever

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society deems to be intolerable restraints. Its root principle is that in a civilized society, government must always be accountable to the judiciary for a man's imprisonment: if the imprisonment cannot be shown to conform with the fundamental requirements of law, the individual is entitled to his immediate release. Thus there is nothing novel in the fact that today habeas corpus in the federal courts provides a mode for the redress of denials of due process of law. Vindication of due process is precisely its historic office. In 1593, for example, a bill was introduced in the House of Commons, which, after deploring the frequency of violations of 'the great Charter and auncient good Lawes and statutes of this realme,' provided:

'Fore remedy whereof be it enacted: That the provisions and prohibicions of the said great Charter and other Lawes in that behalfe made be dulie and inviolatelie observed. And that no person or persons be hereafter committed to prison but yt be by sufficient warrant and Authorities and by due course and...

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