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April 19, 2023

In 6-3 ruling, SCOTUS rules for Texas capital defendant concerning statute of limitation for seeking DNA testing in § 1983 action

The Supreme Court handed down a notable criminal procedure ruling this morning in Reed v. Goertz, No. 21-422 (S. Ct. April 19, 2023) (available here). Justice Kavanaugh wrote the opinion for the Court which starts this way:

In many States, a convicted prisoner who still disputes his guilt may ask state courts to order post-conviction DNA testing of evidence.  If the prisoner’s request fails in the state courts and he then files a federal 42 U.S.C. §1983 procedural due process suit challenging the constitutionality of the state process, when does the statute of limitations for that §1983 suit begin to run?  The Eleventh Circuit has held that the statute of limitations begins to run at the end of the state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including the state-court appeal. See Van Poyck v. McCollum, 646 F. 3d 865, 867 (2011).  In this case, by contrast, the Fifth Circuit held that the statute of limitations begins to run when the state trial court denied DNA testing, notwithstanding a subsequent state-court appeal. See 995 F. 3d 425, 431 (2021). We conclude that the statute of limitations begins to run at the end of the state-court litigation.

Justice Thomas authored a lengthy solo dissent that starts this way:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”) affirmed the denial of petitioner Rodney Reed’s state-law motion for postconviction DNA testing. Reed petitioned this Court for certiorari, arguing that the CCA’s interpretation and application of the relevant state law violated his federal due process rights. After we denied his petition, Reed repackaged it as a complaint in Federal District Court, naming respondent (the Bastrop County District Attorney) as a placeholder defendant. Like his earlier certiorari petition, Reed’s complaint assails the CCA’s state-law reasoning as inconsistent with due process, and it seeks a declaration that the CCA’s interpretation and application of state law was unconstitutional.

Reed’s action should be dismissed for lack of subjectmatter jurisdiction. Federal district courts lack appellate jurisdiction to review state-court judgments, and Reed’s action presents no original Article III case or controversy between him and the district attorney. Because the Court erroneously holds that the District Court had jurisdiction over Reed’s action, I respectfully dissent.

Justice Alito wrote a shorter dissent joined by Justice Gorsuch that has these opening pragraphs:

As the Court notes and the parties agree, the statute of limitations for Reed’s claim is two years. Ante, at 4; Brief for Petitioner 17; Brief for Respondent 17. Reed filed his complaint on August 8, 2019, and the lower courts held that this was too late. The question before us is when the 2-year statute of limitations began to run, that is in legal parlance, when Reed’s claim “accrued.” As the parties agree, the general rule is that a claim accrues when the plaintiff has “a complete and present cause of action,” Wallace v. Kato, 549 U. S. 384, 388 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). Reed contends that his claim did not accrue until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) denied his petition for rehearing on October 4, 2017, and thus refused to retract the interpretation of Article 64 that the court had unanimously adopted on April 12, 2017. Goertz, on the other hand, argues that Reed’s claim accrued no later than the date of the CCA’s April 12 decision, and because that date preceded the federal lawsuit by more than two years, Goertz maintains that we should affirm the Fifth Circuit’s decision that Reed’s complaint was filed too late.

As I will explain, there is room for debate about exactly when Reed’s DNA testing claim accrued, but in my view, the notion that this did not take place until rehearing was denied is clearly wrong.

April 19, 2023 at 10:21 AM | Permalink


With this dissent Thomas continues to strengthen his reputation as the cruelest Justice. See https://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/27/opinion/the-youngest-cruelest-justice.html. Of course with the recent revelations, he now also becomes the most corrupt Justice. See e.g., https://jacobin.com/2023/04/clarence-thomas-supreme-court-corruption-billionaire-interests-far-right. Time for the cruelest and most corrupt Justice to resign.

Posted by: anon12 | Apr 19, 2023 11:05:54 AM

I am not a lawyer. Unlike anon12, I cannot speak to the merits of the dissent. However, it does indeed appear that Thomas is determined to be the most corrupt Justice in the history of the Court. See https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2023/04/clarence-thomas-ethics-violations-supreme-court. He brings the entire Supreme Court into disrepute.

Posted by: Dave | Apr 19, 2023 11:12:05 AM

For what it's worth, Thomas's ethical "lapses" have been brought to the attention of the Judicial Conference of the U.S.

Posted by: Mary quite Contrary | Apr 19, 2023 11:42:02 AM

OF COURSE they should be allowed post conviction DNA testing, provided only that the proposed testing is relevant to their guilt or innocence.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Apr 19, 2023 12:00:18 PM

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Supreme Court wastes time with this BS case--the dude is guilty. He was convicted of another murder. Supreme Court has better uses of its time.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 19, 2023 2:39:03 PM


Are you stating that the ruling ordering DNA review is unjust, or without legal foundation? Or is your position strictly 'emotionally based'?

Posted by: SG | Apr 19, 2023 4:45:58 PM

I do not read this SCOTUS case to order DNA review, SG, rather it just holds that the death row defendant's federal action under 1983 claiming a due process problem with the Texas approach to DNA testing can move ahead and was not time-barred as lower courts had wrongly held. Though I agree that the SCOTUS majority reaches a sound result in this case, I also agree with federalist that there are many matters of MUCH greater importance for SCOTUS's limited time and docket space. Especially since eight of the nine Justices saw the Fifth Circuit decision as wrong, this case could and should have been handled through a summary reversal.

Quite some time ago, I gave an lecture and wrote a little article "criticizing the Supreme Court’s troublesome affinity for obsessing over capital cases.": "A Capital Waste of Time? Examining the Supreme Court's 'Culture of Death' https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1154766

If I were to ever update that article, Reed v. Goertz would certainly be part of the updated discussion.

Posted by: Doug B | Apr 19, 2023 5:17:33 PM

This case is really one of those mountain out of a molehill cases. The number of circumstances in which a defendant will have a meritorious claim that has to be raised under Section 1983 will be few and far between. So while this opinion makes it slightly easier to file those claims, it does not signal in any way that those claims will reach receptive ears.

I can see the logic behind each of the three opinions. The majority is mostly right that the denial of the initial motion for rehearing is the end of the "regular" state process. The Alito dissent has a point that, for the most part, at least with high courts, attorneys not involved in the case treat the published opinion as final upon issuance notwithstanding the theoretical possibility that a court will grant rehearing on rare occasions. And the Thomas dissent has a point that, at least outside federal habeas, we normally do not give litigants the opportunity to re-raise a claim as a federal claim after they have lost in state court. Of course, the point made in the Thomas dissent would have a lot more validity if the Supreme Court would return to the days when they heard 120 or even 100 or even 80 cases in a term.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 19, 2023 5:48:56 PM


As I see things the ideal number of cases for SCOTUS to hear is zero, at least on the cert docket. If the lower courts got everything right the high court wouldn't need to correct them.

Their original jurisdiction is an entirely different matter and I express no opinion about a correct number of cases there.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 19, 2023 8:07:42 PM

As I understand it, we have murders A and B, and defendant D has been convicted of both. Even if the conviction for B is solid, and the defendant will never be released from prison due to murder B, it would still have value to know whether or not the conviction for murder A is sound. For example, if it isn't, there has to be another murderer somewhere, and the other murderer also needs to be caught.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Apr 19, 2023 9:35:06 PM

The decision to grant cert. is discretionary--they should address other issues, like maybe, I don't know, the City of Parma's treatment of Mr. Novak.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 20, 2023 9:44:06 AM

Soronel, except that there are cases for which there is no clear answer. A statute is ambiguous or something is different enough from prior cases that it is unclear how the rules apply to the new situation. There will always be disagreements between the lower courts on these issues. The reason for having a Supreme Court is to resolve these types of issues so that federal statutes or the U.S. Constitution have the same meaning in every state and every federal circuit.

In the Reed case, the more important question is what, if any constitutional requirements apply to DNA testing. While, maybe, the rule in Texas is valid, having a clear precedent on the issue seems significant to me. Telling prosecutors and defendants that we will not consider the issue on appeal from the Texas courts but will, instead, let the lower federal courts work out this issue through another round of litigation seems to me to be a waste of everybody's time.

Federalist, while the grant of certiorari is discretionary, there is still a wise use of discretion and an unwise use of discretion. We will respectfully disagree about the City of Parma. If we were dealing with an appeal from a conviction, the case would have been cert worthy. As a Section 1983 case, unless you were granting certiorari to reconsider qualified immunity, the most that could be said is that the decision to file charges was debatable not that clearly established law precluded the filing of charges. Resolving whether the charges were proper would not overcome the qualified immunity defense under current law on qualified immunity.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 20, 2023 11:46:22 AM

tmm, whether we disagree, Parma would have been a good use of cert as compared to worrying about Reed . . . .

Also, QI in Parma was obviously manufactured--the lawyers couldn't be sued, so they had cover to look at the statute (which was applied completely ridiculously) alone and not 1A and give advice to cops who took it. And Parma spent an illegal four days in jail. Funny how that works. Thug government at its finest.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 20, 2023 4:51:46 PM

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