Hilton v. Braunskill

481 U. S. 770

May 26, 1987

When a prisoner’s habeas petition is successful, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure state that the prisoner will be released from custody unless a federal court rules otherwise. The question was whether courts could take into account a prisoner’s predicted danger to the community when deciding whether to keep him in custody.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that federal courts had discretion to keep prisoners in custody based on predicted danger to communities. Rehnquist wrote for the Court, and said that judges ought to have wide discretion in these sorts of cases, since habeas petitions were civil in nature. He rejected the argument that states had traditionally retained the right to make judgments about a prisoner’s danger to the community. Finally, he thought there was no due process clause violation because a guilty verdict would always have been previously attained, and because of the Court’s holding the same day in Salerno.

Marshall dissented, and was joined by Brennan and Blackmun. He thought that giving federal judges such discretion did encroach on the rights of state courts to make decision regarding continued custody after a habeas ruling. Marshall also contended that the due process clause was violated. Because a habeas petition challenges the very Constitutionality of imprisonment, once it is successful the original guilty verdict ought to have no weight whatsoever.

I think the majority is probably right in this case. What interested me most was the voting lineup. In Salerno, Blackmun joined the conservative majority and Stevens dissented. In this case, it was the other way around. All term, I’ve noticed that there seems to be no rhyme or reason when it comes to how those two Justices vote in criminal procedure cases.


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