Published on: Monday, June 1, 2020

In Banister v. Davis, No. 18-2943 (June 1, 2020), the United States Supreme Court held that a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) motion to alter or amend a district court's habeas judgment is not a second or successive habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. SS 2244(b).  The 7 to 2 opinion was written by Justice Kagan, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh.  Justice Alito dissented, joined by Justice Thomas.  Justice Kagan concisely stated the legal issue and Court's holding:

A state prisoner is entitled to one fair opportunity to seek federal habeas relief from his conviction. But he may not usually make a "second or successive habeas corpus application." 28 U. S. C. SS2244(b). The question here is whether a motion brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) to alter or amend a habeas court's judgment qualifies as such a successive petition. We hold it does not. A Rule 59(e) motion is instead part and parcel of the first habeas proceeding.

This case is about two procedural rules: (1) Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e); and (2) 28 U.S.C. SS 2244(b)'s so-called "gatekeeping" restrictions on "second or successive habeas corpus applications."  Federal Habeas proceedings are civil in nature.  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) allows a litigant to file a motion to alter or amend a district court's judgment within 28 days from the entry of judgment.  A Rule 59(e) motion permits a district court to rectify any mistakes in the period immediately following its decision. Normally, a timely filed Rule 59(e) motion suspends the clock for filing a notice of appeal until after the district court disposes of the Rule 59(e) motion.  Once the district court acts on the Rule 59(e) motion, it merges with the original judgment, and a civil/habeas litigant then has 30 days to file a notice of appeal.  

Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a "state prisoner is entitled to one fair opportunity to seek federal habeas relief from his conviction" and/or sentence.  But AEDPA's so-called "gatekeeping" provisions severely restrict a party from filing a "second or successive habeas application."  See 28 U.S.C. SS 2244(b).  Under SS 2244(b), to file a second or successive application in a district court, a prisoner must first obtain leave from the court of appeals based on a "prima facie showing" that his petition satisfies the statute's gatekeeping requirements. Further, a petitioner may not reassert any claims presented in a prior application.

Petitioner Gregory Banister was convicted in Texas state court of aggravated battery and sentenced to 30 years in prison.  After exhausting his state court remedies, Mr. Banister filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. SS 2254.  After the district court denied the habeas petition, Mr. Banister filed a timely Rule 59(e) motion in the district court arguing that the to correct what he saw as "manifest errors of law and fact."  Once the district court denied his Rule 59(e) motion, Mr. Banister timely filed a notice of appeal (along with an application for certificate of appealability) to challenge the district court's denial of his habeas petition. But the Fifth Circuit construed the Rule 59(e) motion as a successive habeas petition and dismissed his appeal as untimely.  The Fifth Circuit's ruling rested on its conclusion that the Rule 59(e) motion was not a proper Rule 59(e) motion because it "attack[ed] the federal court's previous resolution of [his] claim on the merits," and thus must be construed as a "successive habeas petition."

In holding that a Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend a habeas court's judgment is not is not a second or successive habeas application, the Court reaffirmed that the phrase "second or successive application" is a term of art and does not simply refer to all habeas filings made "second or successively in time," following an initial application.  The Court then looked to (1) historical habeas doctrine and practice and (2) AEDPA's purposes.  After a thorough discussion, the Court concluded: "Here, both historical precedents and statutory aims point in the same direction--toward permitting Rule 59(e) motions in habeas proceedings. And nothing cuts the opposite way."  In the end, the Court said the Fifth Circuit should not have dismissed Banister's appeal as untimely.  It reversed the judgment of the lower court and remanded for further proceedings.

Briefing on the merits in Mr. Banister's case is available on the Supreme Court's website here.  The Training Division provides resources to capital federal habeas and capital trial counsel through the Capital Defense Network