Harris v. Nelson, 199

Decision Date24 March 1969
Docket NumberNo. 199,199
Citation22 L.Ed.2d 281,394 U.S. 286,89 S.Ct. 1082
PartiesGeorge B. HARRIS, Judge of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Petitioner, v. Louis S. NELSON, Warden
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 394 U.S. 1025, 89 S.Ct. 1623.

[Syllabus from 287 intentionally omitted] J. Stanley Pottinger and J. Thomas Rosch, San Francisco, Cal., for petitioner.

Derald E. Granberg, San Francisco, Cal., for respondent.

Jerome Feit, Washington, D.C., for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice FORTAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether state prisoners who have commenced habeas corpus proceedings in a federal district court may, in proper circumstances, utilize the instrument of interrogatories for discovery purposes.


Petitioner is the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Respondent is the warden of the California State Prison at San Quentin. The proceeding was initiated by Alfred Walker who had been convicted in the California courts of the crime of possession of marihuana. After exhaust- ing state remedies, he filed a petition for habeas corpus in the Federal District Court, alleging that evidence seized in the search incident to his arrest was improperly admitted at his trial. The basis for this claim was his allegation that the arrest and incidental search were based solely on the statement of an informant who, according to Walker's sworn statement, was not shown to have been reliable; who, in fact, was unreliable; and whose statements were accepted by the police without proper precautionary procedures.

The District Court issued an order to show cause and respondent made return. Thereafter, Walker filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing, which the District Court granted. Two months later, Walker served upon the respondent warden a series of interrogatories, pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, seeking discovery of certain facts directed to proof of the informant's unreliability. Respondent filed objections to the interrogatories, alleging the absence of authority for their issuance. The District Judge, without stating his reasons, disallowed the objections and directed that the interrogatories be answered. Respondent applied to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for a writ of mandamus or prohibition. The Ninth Circuit vacated the order of the District Court. It held that the discovery provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were not applicable to habeas corpus proceedings and that 28 U.S.C. § 2246, the statutory provision specifically relating to the use of interrogatories in habeas corpus proceedings, did not authorize their use for discovery. Wilson v. Harris, 378 F.2d 141 (1967).

Because of the importance of the questions presented and the diversity of views among the district and appellate courts that have considered the problem, 1 we granted certiorari. 392 U.S. 925, 88 S.Ct. 2289, 20 L.Ed.2d 1384. We agree with the Ninth Circuit that Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is not applicable to habeas corpus proceedings and that 28 U.S.C. § 2246 does not authorize inter ogatories except in limited circumstances not applicable to this case; but we conclude that, in appropriate circumstances, a district court, confronted by a petition for habeas corpus which establishes a prima facie case for relief, may use or authorize the use of suitable discovery procedures, including interrogatories, reasonably fashioned to elicit facts necessary to help the court to 'dispose of the matter as law and justice require.' 28 U.S.C. § 2243. Accordingly, we reverse and remand the case in order that the District Court may reconsider the matter before it in light of our opinion and judgment.


The writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbi- trary and lawless state action. Its pre-eminent role is recognized by the admonition in the Constitution that: 'The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended * * *.' U.S.Const., Art. I, § 9, cl. 2. The scope and flexibility of the writ—its capacity to reach all manner of illegal detention—its ability to cut through barriers of form and procedural mazes—have always been emphasized and jealously guarded by courts and lawmakers. The very nature of the writ demands that it be administered with the initiative and flexibility essential to insure that miscarriages of justice within its reach are surfaced and corrected.

As Blackstone phrased it, habeas corpus is 'the great and efficacious writ, in all manner of illegal confinement.'2 As this Court said in Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 401—402, 83 S.Ct. 822, 829, 9 L.Ed.2d 837 (1963), the office of the writ is 'to provide a prompt and efficacious remedy for whatever society deems to be intolerable restraints.' See Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U.S. 54, 65—67, 88 S.Ct. 1549, 1555, 20 L.Ed.2d 426 (1968).

It is now established beyond the reach of reasonable dispute that the federal courts not only may grant evidentiary hearings to applicants, but must do so upon an appropriate showing. Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 313, 83 S.Ct. 745, 9 L.Ed.2d 770 (1963); Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 464, No. 19, 73 S.Ct. 397, 97 L.Ed. 469 (1953). And this Court has emphasized, taking into account the office of the writ and the fact that he petitioner, being in custody, is usually handicapped in developing the evidence needed to support in necessary detail the facts alleged in his petition, that a habeas corpus proceeding must not be allowed to founder in a 'procedural morass.' Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 269, 68 S.Ct. 1049, 92 L.Ed. 1356 (1948).

There is no higher duty of a court, under our constitutional system, than the careful processing and adjudication of petitions for writs of habeas corpus, for it is in such proceedings that a person in custody charges that error, neglect, or evil purpose has resulted in his unlawful confinement and that he is deprived of his freedom contrary to law. This Court has insistently said that the power of the federal courts to conduct inquiry in habeas corpus is equal to the responsibility which the writ involves: 'The language of Congress, the history of the writ, the decisions of this Court, all make clear that the power of inquiry on federal habeas corpus is plenary.' Townsend v. Sain, supra, at 312, 83 S.Ct. at 757.

In the present case, we are confronted with a procedural problem which tests the reality of these great principles. We are asked by Walker to establish the existence of rights for those in custody to discover facts which may aid their petitions for release. We are asked to do this by declaring that the provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure granting such rights to litigants in civil causes are available to Walker; or if we refuse so to conclude, to affirm the existence of power in the District Court to authorize discovery by written interrogatories. We address ourselves to those issues.


Rule 1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that: 'These rules govern the procedure in the United States district courts in all suits of a civil nature * * * with the exceptions stated in Rule 81.' At the time of the decision below Rule 81(a)(2) provided, in relevant part, that the Rules were not applicable in habeas corpus '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.' 3

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the second requirement—' conformity' with practice—made it necessary to show that 'prior to September 16, 1938, discovery was actually being used in habeas proceedings, and that such use conformed to the then discovery practice in actions at law or suits in equity.' 378 F.2d, at 144. No such showing was made and it is not here contended that it can be made. Walker contends, however, that the rule requires only a showing that habeas proceedings conformed generally to pre-existing practice in law and equity, and he contends that this general requirement is met.

We need not consider this contention that the Court of Appeals took an unnecessarily restricted view of the thrust of the 'conformity' requirement, because for other reasons we conclude that 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) must be read to exclude the application of Rule 33 in habeas corpus proceedings.

It is, of course, true that habeas corpus proceedings are characterized as 'civil.' See, e.g., Fisher v. Baker, 203 U.S. 174, 181, 7 S.Ct. 135, 51 L.Ed. 142 (1906). But the label is gross and inexact.4 Essentially, the proceeding is unique. Habeas corpus practice in the federal courts has conformed with civil practice only in a general sense. There is no indication that with respect to pretrial proceedings for the development of evidence, habeas corpus practice had conformed to the practice at law or in equity 'to the extent' that the application of rules newly developed in 1938 to govern discovery in 'civil' cases should apply in order to avoid a divergence in practice which had theretofore been substantially uniform. Although there is little direct evidence, relevant to the present problem, of the purpose of the 'conformity' provision of Rule 81(a)(2), the concern of the draftsmen, as a general matter, seems to have been to provide for the continuing applicability of the 'civil' rules in their new form to those areas of practice in habeas corpus and other enumerated proceedings in which the 'specified' proceedings had theretofore utilized the modes of civil practice. Otherwise, those proceedings were to be considered outside of the scope of the rules without...

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