Postconviction habeas comprises about 7 percent of federal district courts’ dockets and between 8 and 20 percent of Supreme Court certiorari work. Scholars of all stripes condemn habeas as an empty “charade” lacking “coherent form.” They consequently urge root-and-branch transformation. Resisting that consensus, this Article first advances a descriptive hypothesis: The Roberts Court’s habeas jurisprudence is more internally coherent than generally believed—even if its internal logic has to date escaped substantial scholarly scrutiny. That jurisprudence is an instrument for sorting at the front end of litigation between cases warranting either less or more judicial attention. This account suggests that the Roberts Court titrates judicial attention by streaming cases into one of two channels via a diverse set of procedural and substantive mechanisms. In Track One, petitioners obtain scanty review and almost never prevail. In Track Two, by contrast, petitions receive more serious consideration and have a more substantial (if hardly certain) chance of success. This stylized account of the case law enables more focused investigation of the values that the Roberts Court pursues through its current articulation of habeas doctrine—and this is the Article’s second task. Drawing on both doctrinal analysis and law-and-economics models of litigation, the Article explores several possible justifications for the Court’s observed bifurcated approach. Rejecting explanations based on state-centered federalism values, sorting, and sentinel effects, the Article suggests that some conception of fault best fits the role of a central organizing principle. This aligns habeas with constitutional-tort law, suggesting a previously unexamined degree of interdoctrinal coherence in the Roberts Court’s attitude to otherwise distinct constitutional remedies. While the central aim of this Article is positive and descriptive in character, it concludes by examining some normative entailments of habeas’s persistence in a bifurcated state. Specifically, I suggest that a better understanding of the Court’s fault-based logic casts skeptical light on existing reform proposals, and is at least consistent with the possibility that habeas could still serve as a tool in some larger projects of criminal-justice reform.
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