This Comment confronts the procedural morass of habeas jurisprudence by addressing its most complex iteration. It asks: What is a federal court to do, in light of our federalism jurisprudence and the demanding strictures of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), when a state court provides two reasons to deny a federal claim, finding the claim both procedurally barred and without merit (“forfeiture-merits rulings”)?
This Comment concludes that federal courts can and should apply procedural deference, but not AEDPA deference on the merits. To reach this conclusion, it argues that the circuit courts’ prevailing approach to forfeiture-merits rulings—which is to apply both procedural and AEDPA deference—is neither a forgone conclusion nor persuasively supported by the circuit courts’ opinions. It further argues that federal courts can (and should) widen the increasingly narrow window for habeas relief by applying only procedural deference, not AEDPA deference, to forfeiture-merits rulings. Most importantly, this Comment argues that federal courts can reach this interpretation of AEDPA using existing legal tools—for example, a technical interpretation of state procedural rules, a narrow view of adjudications, the text and historical progression of pre-AEDPA precedents, and a view of federalism that places a high premium on the uniform interpretation of federal law. In short, this Comment presents an enabling argument to show that if a habeas court is so inclined, it can interpret existing law as emboldening rather than hampering its power to grant relief and to provide a remedy where there otherwise would be none.