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Abstract

By filing a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus, a prisoner initiates a legal proceeding collateral to the direct appeals process. Federal statutes set forth the procedure and parameters of habeas corpus review. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) first signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, included significant cut-backs in the availability of federal writs of habeas corpus. This was by congressional design. Yet, despite the dire predictions, for most of the first decade of AEDPA’s reign, the door to habeas relief remained open. More recently, however, the Supreme Court reinterpreted a key portion of the statute. Pursuant to this new interpretation, habeas corpus relief could become virtually unattainable. During the Supreme Court’s 2011–2012 Term, the Court denied habeas corpus relief to petitioners who demonstrated significant deprivations of constitutional rights. At the root of recent obstacles to relief is the interpretation of a short, but key clause in AEDPA’s amendments to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Pursuant to the statute, a federal court may only grant a writ if a state court’s adjudication on the merits “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” This article discusses the reasons why the interpretation or standard that defines the “unreasonable application” clause has proven to be most critical to the availability of habeas corpus relief.