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April 24, 2012

Unanimous SCOTUS ruling concerning procedures for habeas review in Wood

Habeas junkies (and probably only habeas junkies) will enjoy the Supreme Court's nuanced ruling today in Wood v. Milyard concerning how Court of Appeals may (and may not) handle state habeas actions.  The opinion for the Court, per Justice Ginsburg, gets started this way:

This case concerns the authority of a federal court to raise, on its own motion, a statute of limitations defense to a habeas corpus petition.  After state prisoner Patrick Wood filed a federal habeas corpus petition, the State twice informed the U.S. District Court that it “[would] not challenge, but [is] not conceding, the timeliness of Wood’s habeas petition.” App. 70a; see id., at 87a.  Thereafter, the District Court rejected Wood’s claims on the merits.  On appeal, the Tenth Circuit directed the parties to briefthe question whether Wood’s federal petition was timely.  Post-briefing, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of Wood’s petition, but solely on the ground that it was untimely. 

Our precedent establishes that a court may consider astatute of limitations or other threshold bar the State failed to raise in answering a habeas petition.  Granberry v. Greer, 481 U.S. 129, 134 (1987) (exhaustion defense); Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 202 (2006) (statute of limitations defense).  Does court discretion to take up timeliness hold when a State is aware of a limitations defense, and intelligently chooses not to rely on it in the court of first instance?  The answer Day instructs is “no”: A court is not at liberty, we have cautioned, to bypass,override, or excuse a State’s deliberate waiver of a limitations defense.  Id., at 202, 210, n. 11.  The Tenth Circuit, we accordingly hold, abused its discretion by resurrectingthe limitations issue instead of reviewing the District Court’s disposition on the merits of Wood’s claims.

Intriguingly, Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Scalia) concurs separately to contend that "the Day Court was wrong to hold that district courts may raise sua sponte forfeited statute of limitations defenses in habeas cases."  These Justices vote in favor of the habeas petitioner based on the view that the Court simply should "not extend Day’s reasoning to proceedings in the courts of appeals."

April 24, 2012 at 10:18 AM | Permalink


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Thomas/Scalia dissented in an earlier case & stuck with their position. Breyer joined them but joined with the majority here. Ginsburg wrote the earlier opinion (Day) too.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 24, 2012 10:43:17 AM

Given the earlier cases where SCOTUS ruled the AEDPA time bar to be jurisdictional I am surprised they did not come down actually requiring that the district court make a ruling on the matter before proceeding to the merits. Also, I thought that while affirmative defenses could be waived that jurisdiction could not and that a party was free to point out at any time "Hey, Your Honor, this court lacks jurisdiction to hear this case." So I am very surprised by the outcome here.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 25, 2012 9:44:12 AM

I could be wrong, but I don't think the Supreme Court has ever held that the AEDPA's statute of limitations is jurisdictional.

Posted by: Tim Holloway | Apr 25, 2012 11:44:38 AM

Tim is right. SCOTUS held in Day v. McDonough that the 2244(d) time bar isn't jurisdiction and can be waived or forfeited.

Posted by: arfarf | Apr 25, 2012 11:57:17 AM

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