Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court of Kentucky
Decided on Feb. 28, 1973; 410 US 484

Prisoner in Alabama seeks trial in Kentucky


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (Prison)  

B. Legal Question Presented:

Can a district court grant a writ of habeas corpus when it is filed by a person who is not physically present within the territorial limits of the District Court?

A. Background:

In 1967, Petitioner Braden was indicted on various charges by a grand jury in Kentucky.  Before his trial on the indictment he escaped from the custody of Kentucky officials, and was later arrested in Alabama in 1968. He was convicted of various felonies in Alabama state courts, and was sentenced to Alabama state prison.  He was serving his sentence in the Alabama prison at the time he filed this action attacking the validity of the Kentucky indictment. 

Petitioner applied to the District Court for the Western District of Kentucky for a writ of federal habeas corpus. He alleged a denial of his constitutional right to a speedy trial, and prayed that an order issue directing respondent to afford him an immediate trial on the then three-year-old Kentucky indictment.

28 U.S.C. Section 2241(a) states that "[w]rits of habeas corpus may be granted by the... district courts... within their respective jurisdictions" (emphasis supplied). The District Court considered whether this section precluded them from entertaining petitioner's application, as petitioner was not physically present within the territorial limits of the District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.

The District Court held that the section did not bar its determination of the application.  The court also held that petitioner had been denied a speedy trial and ordered respondent either to secure his presence in Kentucky for trial within 60 days or to dismiss the indictment.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed on the ground that ‘the habeas corpus jurisdiction conferred on the federal courts by 28 U.S.C. Section 2241(a) is limited to petitions filed by persons physically present within the territorial limits of the District Court.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
David R. Hood argued the cause and wrote brief for petitioner. Assistant Attorney General of Kentucky John M. Famularo argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Ed W. Hancock.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Melvin L. Wulf, Sanford J. Rosen, and Joel M. Gora filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging reversal.

"...[O]ur decision in Peyton v. Rowe discarded the prematurity doctrine, which had permitted a prisoner to attack on habeas corpus only his current confinement, and not confinement that would be imposed in the future, and opened the door to this action… that federal habeas corpus does not lie, absent ‘special circumstances,’ to adjudicate the merits of an affirmative defense to a state criminal charge prior to a judgment of conviction by a state court. Petitioner does not, however, seek at this time to litigate a federal defense to a criminal charge, but only to demand enforcement of the Commonwealth's affirmative constitutional obligation to bring him promptly to trial. He has made repeated demands for trial to the courts of Kentucky, offering those courts an opportunity to consider on the merits his constitutional claim of the present denial of a speedy trial. Under these circumstances it is clear that he has exhausted all available state court remedies for consideration of that constitutional claim, even though Kentucky has not yet brought him to trial.

The exhaustion doctrine is a judicially crafted instrument which reflects a careful balance between important interests of federalism and the need to preserve the writ of habeas corpus as a ‘swift and imperative remedy in all cases of illegal restraint or confinement’... As applied in our earlier decisions, the doctrine ‘preserves the role of the state courts in the application and enforcement of federal law. Early federal intervention in state criminal proceedings would tend to remove federal questions from the state courts, isolate those courts from constitutional issues, and thereby remove their understanding of and hospitality to federally protected interests. Second, (the doctrine) preserves orderly administration of state judicial business, preventing the interruption of state adjudication by federal habeas proceedings. It is important that petitioners reach state appellate courts, which can develop and correct errors of state and federal law and most effectively supervise and impose uniformity on trial courts.

The fundamental interests underlying the exhaustion doctrine have been fully satisfied in petitioner's situation. He has already presented his federal constitutional claim of a present denial of a speedy trial to the courts of Kentucky. The state courts rejected the claim, apparently on the ground that since he had once escaped from custody the Commonwealth should not be obligated to incur the risk of another escape by returning him for trial. Petitioner exhausted all available state court opportunities to establish his position that the prior escape did not obviate the Commonwealth's duty under Smith v. Hooey, supra. Moreover, petitioner made no effort to abort a state proceeding or to disrupt the orderly functioning of state judicial processes. He comes to federal court, not in an effort to forestall a state prosecution, but to enforce the Commonwealth's obligation to provide him with a state court forum... A federal habeas corpus action at this time and under these circumstances does not jeopardize any legitimate interest of federalism. Respondent apparently shares that view since it specifically concedes that petitioner has exhausted all available state remedies...

The writ of habeas corpus does not act upon the prisoner who seeks relief, but upon the person who holds him in what is alleged to be unlawful custody... [T]he language of Section 2241(a) requires nothing more than that the court issuing the writ have jurisdiction over the custodian. So long as the custodian can be reached by service of process, the court can issue a writ ‘within its jurisdiction’ requiring that the prisoner be brought before the court for a hearing on his claim, or requiring that he be released outright from custody, even if the prisoner himself is confined outside the court's territorial jurisdiction...

Since the petitioner's absence from the Western District of Kentucky did not deprive the court of jurisdiction, and since the respondent was properly served in that district, the court below erred in ordering the dismissal of the petition on jurisdictional grounds. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion."

Held: The judgment is reversed and remanded.

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con

  • Brennan,  Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.