The Story of Fay v. Noia: Another Case About Another Federalism

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Book Chapter

Publication Date



Vicki C. Jackson & Judith Resnik




Foundation Press




“This is a case about federalism.” So began Justice O’Connor’s opinion for the Court in Coleman v. Thompson—the case that overruled Fay v. Noia. No one was surprised that federalism should rule the day in Coleman or that, in the summer of 1991, the Court should insist that federalism led ineluctably to the conclusion that the federal courts could not entertain constitutional claims advanced in a state prisoner’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The scenario was familiar. Roger Keith Coleman had missed a filing deadline when he was litigating his federal claims in state court, the state courts had declined (for that reason) to consider the claims on the merits, and the federal courts must close their doors as well, out of respect for the state’s prerogatives. The Court had taken the same position in “procedural default” cases before (and routinely reaffirms it today): In the name of federalism, state prisoners who fail to comply with state processing rules typically forfeit access to federal court via habeas corpus; individual and federal interests in the federal enforcement of federal rights must bow to countervailing state interests served by local rules.

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