On June 1, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Banister v. Davis that a timely filed Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend the judgment in a habeas case is not a “second or successive” petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The Goodwin team, led by appellate partner Brian Burgess, represented the successful petitioner, Gregory Banister, pro bono.
The case began when Banister filed a federal habeas petition challenging his Texas court conviction of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and 30-year prison sentence, centered on a car accident resulting in the death of a cyclist.
Bannister challenged the conviction on several grounds, including that this state-court counsel provided ineffective assistance in violation of the Sixth Amendment. When the district court denied the petition, Banister filed a motion to reconsider under Rule 59(e) in order to identify errors he perceived in the court’s opinion.
Ordinarily, a Rule 59(e) motion stops the clock on the time to file an appeal, and the clock starts running after the motion is decided. Banister relied on that rule, filing his notice of appeal promptly after his motion to reconsider was denied. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit determined that Banister’s Rule 59(e) motion was really an impermissible “second or successive habeas corpus application.” Under AEDPA, a state prisoner has one fair opportunity to seek habeas relief from a court. A “second or successive habeas corpus application” is not allowed, except in rare circumstances.
For Banister, that seemingly technical ruling had severe real-world consequences: it meant he lost his right to appeal. According to the Fifth Circuit, because the Rule 59(e) motion supposedly was barred by AEDPA, the time to appeal had started when the district court issued its judgment. Because Banister did not appeal until after his Rule 59(e) motion had been decided by the district court, the court of appeals determined that his appeal came several weeks too late and refused to consider the merits of any of his constitutional claims.
Banister filed a petition for a writ of certiorari pro se before the U.S. Supreme Court. After the Court requested a response to the petition, the Goodwin team contacted Banister and agreed to represent him before the Court. Goodwin then filed a reply brief in support of certiorari, and successfully persuaded the Court to grant review.
The Court issued a 7-2 decision siding with Banister. Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, explained that a Rule 59(e) motion is “part and parcel of the first habeas proceeding.” The Court noted that Rule 59(e) had applied in habeas proceedings as a matter of historical practice, and nothing in AEDPA “demand[ed] a change in that tradition.” It also observed that AEDPA is a statute that is intended to promote efficiency, and Rule 59(e) serves that purpose by allowing district courts to “reverse a mistaken judgment,” so as to “make an appeal altogether unnecessary,” or at least “clarify their reasoning or address arguments . . . passed over or misunderstood before.” Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, issued a dissent.
The decision ensures that Banister will have an opportunity to press forward with the merits of his appeal. More broadly, the decision is an important victory for protecting the appellate rights of habeas applicants seeking to challenge the constitutionality of their convictions.