WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, dividing 6-3, barred state prison inmates from federal courts yesterday if a mistake by their lawyers kept state courts from having the first chance to rule on constitutional complaints against their conviction or sentence.
The ruling was the latest, and one of the most far-reaching, decisions in a lengthening list that have curbed state prisoners' opportunities to take constitutional challenges to federal court under a right of review that has origins going back at least to the 13th century.
Casting aside a major 1963 precedent, but without expressly overruling it, the court said that inmates whose convictions have become final must pay the price of lost access to federal courts if their lawyers -- intentionally or not -- had made procedural missteps in state court.
Twenty-eight years ago, in one of the more controversial of the criminal law rulings under then-Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court had allowed state inmates to go to federal court with constitutional challenges not first raised at all in state court, so long as the inmates had not "deliberately" bypassed state court review.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said yesterday that that ruling in the case of Fay vs. Noia had been undercut by more recent decisions, but enough of it remained standing that the court had to decide finally whether it was wrong. The court concluded that it was and would no longer be followed.
The 31-page majority opinion was filled with stern language about the need for federal courts to avoid second-guessing state courts over state convictions and sentences, and the need to show "respect" for the procedural rules of state courts.
In the specific case before the court, federal court review was blocked by the justices because the inmate's lawyer had filed a key legal paper one day late in state court.
If a state has refused to consider a state inmate's constitutional challenge once a conviction has become final, because that challenge either was not made or was not made properly, the federal courthouse door ordinarily will be closed to the challenge, according to the decision.
The ruling had to do with the right, assured by the Constitution, to go to federal court seeking release from prison under the doctrine of "habeas corpus" -- an ancient right that historians trace back at least to England's Magna Carta in 1215.
It comes into play after an individual has been convicted, and has lost the first appeal, at which point the conviction becomes final. Then, an inmate still complaining about a conviction or sentence may start new challenges, first in state and then in federal court.
The dissenting justices complained yesterday that the current court majority was carrying on a "crusade to erect petty procedural barriers in the path of any state prisoner seeking review of his federal constitutional claims."
The decision yesterday, in a Virginia death row inmate's case, did leave available what appeared to be only an outside chance for federal challenges to go ahead even if state courts had refused for procedural reasons to consider them.
If the inmate can show that something beyond the inmate's control made it impossible to put the challenge in state court, and that the legal defect in the case put the conviction itself into question, then a federal judge may hear the challenge anyway, Justice O'Connor wrote.
But, if the reason the state court could not review the challenge was a mistake by the lawyer, beyond the inmate's control, that is not an excuse to keep the challenge alive for federal court review because inmates do not have a right to a lawyer at all once their convictions have become final, the court ruled.
Joining Justice O'Connor in the majority were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter and Byron R. White. Dissenting were Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.
The decision came in the case of Coleman vs. Thompson.
Roger Keith Coleman, sentenced to death nine years ago in Virginia for murdering his sister-in-law, has consistently maintained he is innocent of the crime, and several times has tried to get the verdict and sentence overturned for a variety of constitutional reasons.
After his first appeal failed and his conviction became final, Coleman tried to press his constitutional challenges in state court, but the Virginia Supreme Court ultimately refused to hear that plea, finding that his lawyer had filed an appeal in that proceeding one day late. Coleman then turned to a federal court, which would not hear him because of his lawyer's mistake in state court. The Supreme Court agreed with that result yesterday.