When Appeals Go Unanswered


An investigation this week in the Los Angeles Times asks why some U.S. prisoners wait years for federal courts to respond to their habeas corpus petitions. The article points to one judge in particular, Percy Anderson, who has kept at least three prisoners waiting for more than five years, despite recommendations from officials in two of the cases that felony convictions be overturned.

Prisoners filing habeas appeals are claiming that they are unlawfully detained due to a wrongful conviction or another reason, and most federal habeas writs are denied. A Vanderbilt University report found that only one in 284 federal writs is approved, on average. But the delays from Judge Anderson are unusual.

“The delay is what makes this troubling,” said Arthur Hellman, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert on the federal judiciary. “The delays are unexplained. It certainly raises concerns that are going to persist as long as there’s no explanation.”

“It’s not enough to reach a conclusion but enough to raise concern and enough, in my mind, to raise the desirability of a misconduct inquiry,” he said. “The misconduct process doesn’t exist just to discipline judges who do unethical things, but also to assure the public that the judiciary cares, as an institution, that individual judges are doing their jobs right without any kind of animus or improper attitudes.”

Under the Civil Justice Reform Act, all federal judges are required to report any cases pending for three years or more. Anderson’s latest filing included 18 cases pending longer than three years, and 17 of them were habeas or other prisoners’ rights issues.

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