On the eve of the New York state primary last month, as Hillary Clinton came closer to the Democratic nomination, Vice President Joe Biden went on TV and defended her husband’s 1994 crime bill. Asked in an interview if he felt shame for his role passing a law that has been the subject of so much recent criticism, Biden answered, “Not at all,” and boasted of its successes — among them putting “100,000 cops on the street.” His remarks sparked a new round of debate over the legacy of the crime bill, which has haunted Clinton ever since she hit the campaign trail with a vow to “end the era of mass incarceration.”
A few days later, on April 24, a lesser-known crime law quietly turned 20. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 — or AEDPA — was signed by Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. While it has been mostly absent from the recent debates over the crime policies of the ’90s, its impact has been no less profound, particularly when it comes to a bedrock constitutional principle: habeas corpus, or the right of people in prison to challenge their detention. For 20 years, AEDPA has shut the courthouse door on prisoners trying to prove they were wrongfully convicted. Americans are mostly unaware of this legacy, even as we know more than ever about wrongful convictions. Barry Scheck, co-founder and head of the Innocence Project, calls AEDPA “a disaster” and “a major roadblock since its passage.” Many would like to see it repealed.
If the Clintons have not been forced to defend AEDPA, it’s partly because neither the law nor its shared history with the crime bill is well understood. AEDPA’s dizzying provisions — from harsh immigration policies to toughened federal sentencing — were certainly a hasty response to terrorism. But the law was also the product of an administration that long before the Oklahoma attack had abandoned its party’s core principles on criminal justice, deciding instead to wield crime policy as political weapon. After the Republicans seized control of Congress in the historic 1994 midterm elections, the Clinton White House sought to double down on its law-and-order image in advance of the 1996 presidential race. In the short term, it was a winning political strategy for Clinton. In the long term, it would help pave the way to one of the worst laws of his presidency.
The story that sets the stage for AEDPA can be partly told through White House memos from the time, a trove of which were released in 2014. Buried among hundreds of thousands of digital records housed in the Clinton Digital Library are previously confidential documents that shine light on Clinton’s criminal justice strategies in the mid-90s, yet have been largely overlooked.
One memo reveals a White House weighing its options in the weeks after the “Republican Revolution.” Dated November 22, 1994, it was written by top Department of Justice lawyer Ron Klain, who sent it to his boss as well as members of President Clinton’s inner circle, including Bruce Reed (the operative behind the famed pledge to “end welfare as we know it”) and senior White House adviser Rahm Emanuel. The memo was titled “Crime Bill ‘Redux.’”
“By now, we are all aware of the Republican proposal to revisit last year’s hard won crime bill,” Klain wrote in his memo. Called the Taking Back Our Streets Act, the GOP bill was designed to dismantle the crime bill’s signature features — in particular, a community policing project known as the COPS program — while going even further than the president had in his sweeping legislation. “The Republicans’ goal here is purely political and tactical,” Klain wrote. “To take away the clearest, best ‘Clinton achievement’ on crime, and to deprive the president of the opportunity to award communities all over the country their share of the 100,000 new police officers.”
The GOP also aimed to kill off the crime bill’s prevention programs, but Klain was more concerned about COPS — no doubt in part because the 100,000 police figure had been his idea. A young lawyer described by the New Republic as having “chillingly good political skills,” Klain had been working to pass crime legislation since he was in his 20s, as the “youngest ever chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.” Under Sen. Joe Biden, Klain had drafted unsuccessful precursors to the 1994 crime bill. Now Klain was being credited as the man who successfully steered its passage.
Klain saw “only two possible outcomes” to the Republican maneuvering. “The president will have to sign the bill that Congress sends him, or veto it.” While the former would “outrage our core constituency,” he wrote, the latter posed a potentially bigger threat: “We cannot needlessly give the GOP the opportunity to say that the president is vetoing a ‘tough on crime’ bill for ‘soft on crime’ reasons.”
Fear of looking “soft on crime” on the heels of the most extreme law-and-order legislation in U.S. history might have seemed irrational. The 1994 crime bill broadened “three strikes,” poured money into prison building, and vastly expanded the death penalty. But the new power struggle with Congress meant the White House wasn’t taking any chances.
Klain had a solution. Clinton should “welcome Republican efforts to build on last year’s crime bill,” he wrote, by folding them into new Democratic legislation that protected the administration’s top priorities. If it passed, it would be an additional “win” for the White House. Klain attached to his memo “a very, very rough outline of a possible new crime bill,” along with a chart comparing it both to the 1994 crime bill and the new GOP bill. Klain proposed including a $1 billion cut in prevention programs (reallocating $700 million to new juvenile prisons), more cops in schools, and “tougher truth in sentencing.” In some areas, his outline was harsher than the GOP legislation — “broaden[ing] the range of offenses for which juveniles may be tried as adults” and “enhanc[ing] penalties for lesser drug crimes.” In other areas, like the “deportation of criminal aliens,” it simply adopted the Republican line.
Finally, the proposal reintroduced an idea favored both by Clinton and his foes in Congress: “habeas corpus reform,” previously cut from the crime bill and now part of the Taking Back Our Streets Act. Sometimes called the “Great Writ” for its treasured place in constitutional law, habeas corpus referred to the long-standing right of prisoners to challenge their incarceration in court. For the federal courts, this meant reviewing state convictions for constitutional violations, a process that took years. In the zero-tolerance climate of the ’80s and ’90s, the concept of habeas corpus had met with increasing impatience; critics accused people on death row of gaming the system, filing “appeal after appeal” just to stay alive. “In brief,” Klain wrote, “these reforms would limit death row inmates to a single habeas petition — to be filed within strict time limits — while providing such inmates with competent counsel to assist in preparing this single filing.” While the Republican version of habeas reform made no guarantee on the right to counsel, both sides could agree on the need to speed up the death penalty.
After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton appeared on “60 Minutes” calling for the perpetrator to be executed.
Klain’s imagined crime bill sequel never came to pass — he left the DOJ early the next year. But his top priority lived on. In February 1995, as Clinton threatened to veto the looming GOP bill over the COPS program, White House staff received talking points titled “DEBUNKING THE MYTHS: THE 100,000 COPS PROGRAM WORKS!!!” In the meantime, others considered the habeas provisions in the Taking Back Our Streets Act. The administration seemed poised to fight for competent counsel; one memo from February 1995 is particularly notable. Apart from providing for lawyers at the post-conviction stage, it stressed that habeas reform “must provide for competent trial counsel,” since “excessive delays in capital cases result not only from manipulation of habeas corpus procedures, but also from a high rate of constitutional error in capital trials.” This point tended to be aggressively ignored in the calls to speed up the death penalty, which usually blamed prisoners for abusing their rights.
As the GOP bill continued to advance that spring, the White House was planning PR events to blunt its political impact. “Our strategy on crime has always been to associate ourselves with police officers,” Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed wrote to Clinton in March, urging him to “bolster this image.” But then, suddenly, everything changed.
On the morning of April 19, 1995, a massive explosion rocked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more. On the ground days later, Clinton gave a powerful eulogy — PR events were no longer needed. It was now up to the president to keep Americans safe, not just from criminals, but from terrorists. Dropping its work on the GOP crime bill, Congress vowed to pass a new counterterrorism bill by Memorial Day.
But at least one key criminal justice priority survived. On the Sunday after the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton appeared on 60 Minutes, calling for the perpetrator to be executed. The 1994 crime bill had expanded the death penalty “for purposes such as this,” he said. “If this is not a crime for which capital punishment is called, I don’t know what is.” Asked by co-host Ed Bradley how he could deliver on his promise that “justice will be certain, swift and severe,” Clinton called for speeding up death penalty appeals. “Congress has the opportunity this year to reform the habeas corpus proceedings,” he said. “And I hope that they will do so.”
If it was unclear how proposals to shorten appeals for state prisoners related to federal terror cases, prosecutors nonetheless applauded Clinton’s remarks. In a letter to the White House, a bipartisan group of state attorneys general warned that failure to overhaul habeas corpus would endlessly delay justice for “such acts of senseless violence” and undermine “the expression of our level of opprobrium as a nation for acts of terrorism.”
Almost a year later, on April 24, 1996, a signing ceremony took place on the South Lawn of the White House. “In a presidential election year,” the AP reported, “it was an opportunity for a warm display of bipartisanship on a sunny, spring day.” The New York Times described “the Marine band playing and American flags whipping in the breeze.”
“We send a loud, clear message today all over the world, in your names,” the president told families in attendance whose loved ones had died in Oklahoma City. “America will never surrender to terror.” Then he signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
Twenty years later, AEDPA has long been eclipsed as a counterterrorism measure by the USA Patriot Act, which was built on its foundations. As crime legislation, it remains relatively unknown, even amid renewed debate over Clinton’s other policies. But for people in prison, its legacy has been sweeping and harsh. For all the rhetoric that accompanied the signing of AEDPA, it has been most severely felt by state prisoners with no connection to terrorism — and especially those who insist they are innocent.
AEDPA is most notorious for its impact on death penalty cases. “I suspect that there may well have been innocent people who were executed because of the absence of habeas corpus,” said former D.C. Circuit Judge Abner Mikva, a Carter appointee who later served as White House counsel in 1994 and 1995. For Mikva, who turned 90 this year, his failure to stop so-called habeas reform is one of the major regrets of his career. He still recalls his time as a young law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton in the 1950s; when habeas petitions would reach his desk, Mikva said, “I saw how complicated it was for him to review these handwritten records — which is what they had at the time — and how uncertain some of the convictions were.”
“I was writing a bunch of letters trying to get help,” he recalled, when under AEDPA, “the situation became more dire.” Amid the confusion over how the law applied to old cases — for prisoners like Deskovic, who had exhausted his state appeals, the one-year countdown began upon enactment of AEDPA — his lawyer missed the April 24, 1997, deadline by four days. The district attorney argued that his petition should be dismissed on these grounds. The courts agreed (including the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decision was co-written by Sonia Sotomayor). Deskovic spent six more years in prison before the Innocence Project convinced the new district attorney to test DNA in his case. It matched someone else and his conviction was vacated.
Deskovic was lucky to have an attorney at all. “I don’t think people realize that [non-death row] inmates are not provided with attorneys in federal court,” Deskovic said. Although AEDPA contained no promise of competent counsel in the end, people on death row are entitled to post-conviction representation. Others are often left to file pro se petitions, essentially representing themselves. “So now you have poor people who are often poorly educated — certainly not lawyers, certainly not having formal legal education — wading through this procedural thicket, and they can very easily get tripped up. And federal courts think nothing of saying, ‘Oh, you didn’t follow this rule? This procedure? We’re not looking at your case anymore.’”
Even more profound than the strict limits and deadlines it imposed in individual cases is the way AEDPA altered the balance of power between state and federal courts, favoring finality over fairness. Under AEDPA, federal courts may only grant habeas relief if a state court ran afoul of “clearly established federal law,” or if its ruling was rooted in “an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.” In the oblique language of the law, this drastically raised the bar for overturning state convictions. Federal judges have been “pretty much shut out … from granting habeas relief in most cases, even when they believe that an egregious miscarriage of justice has occurred,” 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the Georgetown Law Journal last year. “We now regularly have to stand by in impotent silence, even though it may appear to us that an innocent person has been convicted.”
In the New York Times Magazine last summer, Emily Bazelon cited Kozinski as one of a growing number of critics who have called for the repeal of AEDPA. Federal judges “are now raising alarm that the law is systematically failing to provide the necessary safeguards against miscarriages of justice,” she wrote. There are many examples of the way AEDPA has been “cruel” and responsible for “much human suffering,” according to Kozinski. But Deskovic, who now runs a foundation to help the wrongfully convicted, points to the case of a man named Lorenzo Johnson as particularly egregious.
Johnson was convicted in Pennsylvania for his involvement in a 1995 murder. The state never claimed he was the triggerman or even that he had a direct role in the killing, yet at 22 Johnson was sentenced to mandatory life without parole. In October 2011, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, finding that, while Johnson might have been present at the scene, the claim that he intended to commit murder was “mere speculation” by the state. After 16 years behind bars, Johnson walked out of prison. With Deskovic’s help, Johnson found a job, reunited with his family, and pursued public speaking.
But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 3rd Circuit’s ruling, holding that it had “failed to afford due respect to the role of the jury and the state courts of Pennsylvania.” Although the federal court had found insufficient evidence to keep Johnson in prison, the “state court of last review” disagreed — “and that determination in turn is entitled to considerable deference under AEDPA.” After four months of freedom, Johnson got a phone call from his lawyer telling him he had to go back to prison. “It was surreal and horrifying,” said Deskovic, who drove him back to Pennsylvania from New York. Along the way, Johnson made calls to friends and family, struggling to explain. To Deskovic, it was a grotesque ruling by the Supreme Court — a “rush to repudiate a line of reasoning by the lower federal court,” rather than an interest in justice. Johnson “shouldn’t have had to be returned back to prison on a technicality.”
Today Johnson writes articles behind bars that are published at the Huffington Post. In a recent article titled “Clinton’s Other Terrible Crime Bill,” he described the lasting impact of AEDPA. “Although I’m living through a nightmare, I’m also just one of many others,” he wrote, pointing out the record number of exonerations in recent years. “But these numbers have not even scratched the surface; there are many other wrongfully convicted people still in prison.”
In the recent debates about crime policy from the ’90s, a common Clinton defense has been one of unintended consequences, in which bad laws were born of the best intentions. But White House memos in the run-up to AEDPA make clear that Clinton had been thoroughly warned about its dangers. What’s more, news articles from the era betray the extent to which criminal justice policies were being crafted with political strategy in mind, rather than as serious solutions to crime. “It’s been the most careful political calculation,” former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann told the New York Times after leaving the DOJ in 1994 — “with absolutely sublime indifference to the real nature of the problem.”
Indeed, with crime rates falling in the mid-90s, even the landmark features of the 1994 crime bill largely boiled down to posturing. In the New Republic, a former operative for Clinton’s 1992 campaign recalled the origins of the $8.8 billion COPS program that Joe Biden defends to this day: “Clinton had a big crime speech coming up. We had no idea how many extra cops would be a good thing. … Bruce Reed and I called [Ron Klain] from Little Rock. He said, ‘Would 100,000 be enough?’” Not surprisingly, in contrast to Biden’s boasting, the COPS program failed to deliver on its promises.
By the time AEDPA passed, Clinton had learned how effectively he could undercut the Republicans by co-opting their ideas on crime. Republicans were outraged. “We say habeas corpus, they say sure. … We say prisons; they say sure,” one frustrated GOP source complained to the New York Times as the 1996 election against Bob Dole approached. But critics pointed out that the costs of such a winning political strategy were far too high. “I have absolutely no faith that constitutional principles matter to this president when they emerge in a criminal-justice context,” American Civil Liberties Union legislative director Laura W. Murphy told the Times. AEDPA marked “a total collapse” on the issue.
In the end, the final question for Clinton when it came to gutting habeas corpus was how to spin it.
In an email to The Intercept, Klain defended the 1994 memo in which he sought to outmaneuver the GOP by proposing a tough new Democratic crime bill. “Clearly we were trying hard to stave off draconian legislation being advanced by the new Republican majority,” he wrote. As for habeas corpus, he drew a clear distinction between what the Democrats advanced and what ended up in AEDPA. “We explored a number of strategies to prevent their plans to gut appeal rights without providing adequate counsel,” he said. “The GOP version passed after I left.”
It is true that many Democrats fought against the version of habeas reform that passed as part of AEDPA. Among them was Joe Biden, who for years had hoped to pass a habeas reform law of his own. But his proposed legislation, most recently aimed at the 1994 crime bill, had been drafted with state prisoners in mind, meaning that “the Biden bill would not affect the case of Timothy McVeigh,” as Bruce Reed wrote to Clinton on May 3, 1995, two weeks after the bombing. “We should go along with some form of limits on appeals by federal prisoners,” Reed advised. In the margins, Clinton appears to have written “agree.”
Two days later, White House lawyer Chris Cerf sent a memo to his colleagues comparing the dueling versions of habeas reform before Congress. He analyzed their legal implications and their chances of passing. Biden’s bill, which included myriad provisions on the right to counsel, was “dead on arrival.” A measure brought forward by Senate Judiciary Chair Orrin Hatch as part of the terrorism bill introduced by Bob Dole was somewhat “less radical” than other GOP versions, but still “a very significant incursion into traditional habeas law.” Cerf raised particular caution over provisions that required higher standards of deference to state courts and made it harder for federal courts to grant evidentiary hearings. “For all practical purposes,” he wrote, these two combined “would eliminate federal habeas hearings.”
The White House should accept the Hatch bill on a set of strict conditions, Cerf wrote. Among them: the deletion of those troubling provisions and the addition of language to ensure “competent counsel at all phases of a capital case.” If Hatch refused, Cerf wrote, the White House should reject his proposal and instead aggressively try to “unbundle habeas from the counterterrorism bill,” saving the fight for another day. But he was not optimistic. “My sense … is that the habeas train is coming down the track and is unstoppable,” Cerf wrote, “especially after the president’s comments on 60 Minutes.” In an underlined sentence, he warned, “We do not want to put the president in the position of having to accept highly objectionable habeas provisions merely because they are tied to the counterterrorism bill.”
Indeed, while it would take almost a year to pass AEDPA, Clinton’s immediate call to speed up the death penalty days after the bombing had rigged the game from the start. As Democrats began threatening to throw gun control amendments at Dole’s terror bill to force the removal of habeas reform, Hatch seized on Clinton’s own rhetoric, declaring, “The American people do not want to witness the spectacle of these terrorists abusing our judicial system … by filing appeal after meritless appeal.” For a moment, Clinton stood his ground. In late May 1995, a month after the attack, he sent a letter to Dole arguing against passing habeas reform as part of the terrorism bill and stressing the need to protect “the historic right to meaningful federal review.” But less than two weeks later, on Larry King Live, Clinton suddenly reversed course. Habeas reform “ought to be done in the context of this terrorism legislation,” he said, “so that it would apply to any prosecutions brought against anyone indicted in Oklahoma.”
Inside the White House, Abner Mikva believed he knew what had happened. In early June 1995, just days after Clinton wrote to Dole, a delegation from Oklahoma City arrived in Washington. It included survivors of the bombing as well as grieving family members. They called themselves “the habeas group.” Convinced it would result in swifter justice for the terrorist attack, they were lobbying for streamlining death row appeals. Mikva and his staff had been trying at the time to convince the president to support a more cautious version of habeas reform put forward by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But after the visit, Mikva recalls, all bets were off. “He wrote on my memo, ‘No. Oklahoma.’ And that was the end of our efforts.”
Yet, for all the political gamesmanship that paved the way to AEDPA, Mikva places the ultimate blame for the erosion of habeas corpus on the judiciary — particularly conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. Rehnquist had long railed against the drawn-out appeals that delayed executions for making “a mockery of our criminal justice system.” Upon assuming the Supreme Court bench, in 1988, Rehnquist formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Habeas Corpus in Capital Cases, naming retired Justice Lewis Powell Jr. as its head. Powell “came up with some very draconian changes to habeas,” Mikva recalled, “which were basically the substance of what ultimately passed.”
Federal judges at the time were alarmed by the recommendations. In 1989, at a Senate Judiciary hearing convened by Joe Biden, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th Circuit decried Powell’s report. “Finality and speed are the presumed objectives,” Reinhardt testified. “They seem to outweigh the concerns for fairness, justice, due process, and compliance with the constitution.” Citing his experiences with prosecutors who withheld evidence in capital cases — violations that can take years to discover — Reinhardt posed the question: “What can I do if someone comes in with affidavits and proof asking for relief from me when a man is about to be executed and the statute says I have no jurisdiction or authority to grant a stay or any habeas relief?”
Yet habeas reform efforts continued along parallel tracks in the legislative and judicial branches. By the time AEDPA passed, a series of Supreme Court rulings had already made it more difficult to challenge state convictions. (Indeed, in one 1995 White House memo to Clinton, Bruce Reed noted that Republicans had ultimately dropped habeas reform from the 1994 crime bill over fears that “a Democratic crime bill would undermine recent Supreme Court decisions that have strengthened prosecutors’ hands.”) To some legal scholars at the time, this made AEDPA mostly symbolic — an attempt by lawmakers to take credit for what the judiciary had already done.
In Congress, however, others saw the dangers posed by AEDPA. On April 17, 1996, during the final round of fighting in the Senate, New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that the provisions curtailing habeas corpus would “introduce a virus that will surely spread throughout our system of laws.” One of just eight senators to vote against the law — Biden was not among them — Moynihan read from a letter to Clinton sent by four attorneys general. They urged him to “communicate to the Congress your resolve, and your duty under the Constitution, to prevent the enactment of such unconstitutional legislation and the consequent disruption of so critical a part of our criminal punishment system.”
But in the end, the final question for Clinton when it came to gutting habeas corpus was how to spin it. On April 23, 1996, the day before the ceremony on the South Lawn, Bruce Reed sent a memo to the White House staff secretary titled “Habeas language in signing stmt.” The remarks drafted for the president went into “far more detail” than they should, he wrote. “I realize this is a controversial issue,” Reed said, “but it is also one that could get us in trouble if we say more than necessary.”
AEDPA has fulfilled the very concerns Clinton brushed aside upon signing the bill.
With the presidential election in view, Republicans were already “blasting us with the charge” that Clinton’s re-election would “be a bonanza for criminals’ rights,” Reed wrote, somewhat ironically. He suggested a number of edits to minimize avenues for attack. Among them: “We should drop the sentence, ‘I am advised that one provision of this important bill could be interpreted in a manner that would undercut meaningful federal habeas corpus review and raise profoundly troubling constitutional issues.’ This sentence could be used against us,” he warned, “and doesn’t add anything, since we later say we don’t think it will be interpreted this way.”
Yet Clinton’s final remarks struck a defensive tone. His signing statement contained four paragraphs on the habeas provisions in AEDPA, assuring that they would neither “limit the authority of the federal courts” or “deny litigants a meaningful opportunity” to win evidentiary hearings. “Our constitutional ideal of a limited government that must respect individual freedom has been a practical reality because independent federal courts have the power ‘to say what the law is’ and to apply the law to the cases before them,” Clinton said. “I have signed this bill on the understanding that the courts can and will interpret these provisions … in accordance with this ideal.”
But Clinton was wrong. AEDPA has instead fulfilled the very concerns he brushed aside upon signing the bill. It is a law “misconceived at its inception and born of misguided political ambition,” as Judge Stephen Reinhardt recently wrote, some 25 years after testifying before Congress, “and repeatedly interpreted … in the most inflexible and unyielding manner possible.”
Ironically, AEDPA had little bearing in the end on the case of Timothy McVeigh, whose relatively swift execution in 2001 had more to do with political will than stringent new review standards. Nor did AEDPA solve the problem its supporters claimed it would address in the first place — federal court dockets remain backlogged and prisoners spend longer awaiting execution than ever.
But in a sense, the cruelest irony is how AEDPA has affected those who are not on death row yet nonetheless face the prospect of dying in prison on dubious grounds. Ignored by those who championed the law — and still largely invisible from the debate — they have been no less affected by its legacy. As Lorenzo Johnson wrote from a prison cell last month, “AEDPA has been devastating for wrongfully convicted prisoners and their families. Reform is long overdue.”