For years, the prevailing academic and judicial wisdom has held that, between them, Congress and the Supreme Court have rendered post-conviction habeas review all but a dead letter. But in its January 2016 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court may have dramatically upended that understanding in holding—for the first time—that there are at least some cases in which the Constitution itself creates a right to collateral post-conviction review, i.e., cases in which a prisoner seeks to enforce retroactively a “new rule” of substantive constitutional law under the familiar doctrine of Teague v. Lane.
On the surface, Montgomery held only that state courts are required to employ Teague’s retroactivity framework when and if they adjudicate habeas petitions relying on new substantive rules of federal law. But, in reaching that conclusion, the Court clarified that Teague’s holding that new substantive rules of federal law are retroactively applicable on collateral review was grounded in the Constitution, rather than common law or the federal habeas statute—a holding that, as we explain, was both novel and important.
We next consider which courts—state or federal—have the obligation to provide the constitutionally required collateral review recognized in Montgomery. Either way, the implications of Montgomery are far-reaching. To conclude that the state courts must provide collateral review would run counter to the conventional wisdom that states are under no obligation to permit collateral attacks on convictions that have become final. On the other hand, the conclusion that federal courts must have jurisdiction to grant such collateral review is in significant tension with the Madisonian Compromise. In our view, the Supreme Court’s Supremacy Clause jurisprudence establishes that the constitutionally required collateral remedy recognized in Montgomery must be available, in the first instance, in state courts, even if the state has not chosen to provide collateral post-conviction relief for comparable state law claims. The state courts also have the constitutional power and duty to afford such relief to federal prisoners, but Congress has the power to withdraw such cases from the state courts by giving the federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over such claims (and should be presumed to have done so). Thus, we conclude that the state courts are constitutionally obligated to afford collateral post-conviction review to state prisoners in the circumstances covered by Montgomery, and the federal courts should be presumed to have the statutory obligation to afford such review to federal prisoners.
Finally, we examine some of the important questions raised by the conclusion that state and federal prisoners have a constitutional right to collateral relief. Although the questions are complex, and not all of the answers are clear, the uncertainties surrounding some of the contours of the remedy recognized in Montgomery should not obscure the fact that this seemingly innocuous holding about the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction actually upends a half-century’s worth of doctrinal and theoretical analyses of collateral post-conviction review, a result that should have a significant impact on both commentators’ and courts’ understanding of the relationship between collateral post-conviction remedies and the Constitution.