On June 1, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-2 decision in Banister v. Davis, ruling in favor of Texas prisoner Gregory Banister who was sentenced to a term of 30 years in prison for aggravated assault. The Court held that motions asking for amended decisions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) should not be treated as unauthorized successive habeas petitions. The ruling preserves the full potential effectiveness of an important tool for capital and non-capital petitioners alike in their federal habeas proceedings.
Mr. Banister’s pro se certiorari petition asked the Court to settle an open question of habeas procedure regarding the contours of the rules under which federal courts can re-examine their own decisions. In habeas proceedings, these rules interplay with provisions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) that prohibit most successive habeas petitions. In denying Mr. Banister’s Rule 59(e) motion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit cited Gonzalez v. Crosby, which governs when a motion under Rule 60(b)—which asks for relief from judgment and operates differently than Rule 59(e) motions—should be treated as a prohibited successive petition. As Mr. Banister pointed out in his petition, the federal circuits were split on whether Gonzalez also applies to Rule 59(e) motions.
Mr. Banister was represented pro bono by counsel from Goodwin Proctor for merits briefing and oral argument. The Court’s opinion, authored by Justice Kagan, echoed the dichotomy between Rules 59(e) and 60(b) raised by several of the justices when questioning the parties during arguments. Holding that Rule 59(e) motions are “part and parcel of the first habeas proceeding,” the Court rooted its reasoning in both “historical precedents and statutory aims.” The Court noted the common law history of considering Rule 59(e) motions on their merits, without discussion of whether they constituted successive litigation, and noted that Congress had left this unchanged by failing to define them as successive petitions within AEDPA. Discussing AEDPA’s aims of discouraging prolonged litigation, the Court noted the narrow 28-day window in which Rule 59(e) motions must be filed and pointed out that such motions can also help to advance AEDPA’s goal, as a court taking the opportunity to correct its own judgment avoids an unnecessary appeal. The Court contrasted these characteristics with Rule 60(b) motions, which are often “distant in time and scope and always giving rise to a separate appeal.”
In a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Thomas, Justice Alito argued that the reasoning of Gonzalez should apply just as forcefully to Rule 59(e) motions as to those brought under Rule 60(b), to deny requests to reconsider a claim’s merits. The dissent distinguished 59(e) motions asking for merits consideration, as Mr. Banister’s did, from those raising a change in law, newly discovered evidence, or the ability to file a claim. According to the dissent, motions falling in the former category require automatic dismissal under AEDPA, whether styled as Rule 59(e) or Rule 60(b) motions. The dissent further rejected the majority’s reasoning regarding the history of Rule 59(e) generally, arguing that habeas proceedings are removed from other types of civil proceedings, rendering AEDPA the controlling text when conflicts arise rather than the history or purpose of the civil procedure rules.