Right to Legal Assistance. The constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases does not apply to habeas proceedings. However, prisoners have a “constitutional right of access to the courts” that requires states to assist inmates in preparing and filing habeas petitions by providing some form of legal assistance, such as adequate law libraries or the assistance of persons trained in law. If a state has not made alternative forms of legal assistance available, it must allow inmates to assist each other in filing habeas petitions.

A court is required to appoint counsel for an indigent petitioner when an evidentiary hearing is required or when necessary for the petitioner's effective utilization of discovery. The court may also appoint counsel at any stage of the habeas proceeding when the interests of justice so require. Petitioners who proceed in forma pauperis may obtain copies of pertinent documents or portions of the record without cost.

An indigent habeas petitioner seeking to vacate or set aside a death sentence is statutorily entitled to appointed counsel, as well as expert and investigative services. Furthermore, an indigent state prisoner seeking federal habeas relief to vacate or set aside a death sentence imposed by a state court is authorized to retain federally appointed counsel in subsequent state clemency proceedings. The statutory right to counsel for indigent death row habeas petitioners attaches when a petitioner files a motion requesting appointment of counsel for a habeas proceeding.