314.01 Federal Habeas Corpus

What is habeas corpus and why has it earned the title of the “Great Writ”?  Habeas corpus allows prisoners to challenge their detentions and it empowers judges to free prisoners that are unlawfully detained.  The writ reaches the most unpopular prisoners: enemies of the state, war criminals, and those convicted of the most heinous crimes.  Due to its historic role as the last resort for prisoners to obtain judicial review, the U.S. Supreme Court has called the Great Writ one that is “indispensable” and one that “indisputably holds an honored position in our jurisprudence.”  Thus, prisoner litigation is the subject of this course, and in particular, the rights and remedies available to prisoners who seek to challenge their detention.

We will use my co-authored casebook: the first to cover federal habeas corpus comprehensively, presenting post-conviction review and executive detention litigation in an accessible way.  It is available on Sakai, along with the rest of our course materials. We will begin with an examination of the writ of habeas corpus, under which federal courts examine whether detentions are authorized.  We will explore the historical evolution of the writ from a common law prerogative writ to the U.S. federal system and the meaning of the enigmatic Suspension Clause of the U.S. Constitution. We will then focus on habeas litigation by state prisoners convicted of crimes.  We will study the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and how it intersects with the key Supreme Court decisions that define the limits and procedures for habeas corpus, including through the doctrines of exhaustion, procedural default, non-retroactivity, and miscarriage of justice innocence “gateway” claims.

In the second part of the course, we will examine the Suspension Clause and how Article III of the Constitution shapes the power of judges to use habeas corpus.  We will explore the use of habeas corpus to remedy unlawful executive detention, including immigration detention, military detention, and national security detention.  We will study recent statutes and Supreme Court decisions relating to persons indefinitely detained or facing military commission trials post-9/11.  We will conclude by studying the intersection of habeas corpus and civil litigation, and with a broader look at the future of habeas corpus.

We will conduct a series of practical exercises based on real cases, during synchronous classes and offline.  Short lectures will often be recorded in advance to focus our synchronous time on engaging with  the material. The goal is for you to understand the doctrine and theory but also develop practical litigation skills, directly applicable to prisoner litigation, and also to litigation generally. Some will be in-class exercises, while others will be written exercises outside of class.  You will be given feedback on your work throughout the semester. Similarly, grading will be based not just on a final  exam, but on class participation (in synchronous classes, in comments on each other’s work, and on the Sakai forum discussion pages), written answers to three review exercises, written comments on classmates’ answer to review exercises, a midterm exam, and a final exam. All midterm and final exam grading is blind.

Spring 2023

Course Number Course Credits Evaluation Method Instructor
Course Credits
Final Exam
Practical exercises
Class participation
Brandon L. Garrett
Sakai site: https://sakai.duke.edu/portal/site/LAW-314-01-Sp23
Email list: LAW-314-01-Sp23@sakai.duke.edu
Degree Requirements
Course Requirements - JD
Course Requirements - LLM
Course Requirements - Public Interest
Course Areas of Practice