The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in Magwood v. Patterson [Cornell LII backgrounder] that a federal habeas corpus petition is not "second or successive" when a new judgment intervenes between it and a previous petition. Federal law [28 USC § 2244(b) text] bars the filling of a "second or successive" habeas petition when that claim was made or could have been made in the previous petition. Under the law, if the petition is "second or successive," the petitioner must be granted leave from the court of appeals before filing in the district court. In its ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the state's argument that the statute functioned as a "one opportunity" rule, barring a second habeas petition where the petitioner could have raised the same claim during the first habeas petition. Although the term "second or successive" is not defined in the statute, the court held that case law and "statutory context" indicate that the law was meant only to apply to repeat habeas petitions made on the same judgment. The court went on to reject the state's argument that its interpretation was in line with the statute's purpose, finding that the court "cannot replace the actual text with speculation as to Congress' intent." In reversing the decision of the lower court and remanding the case, Justice Clarence Thomas explained:
Ironically, in an effort to effectuate what they believe is Congress' intent not to give any unfair benefit to habeas petitioners, the State and the dissent propose an alternative rule that would "close our doors to a class of habeas petitioners seeking review without any clear indication that such was Congress' intent." Many examples can be given, but one suffices to illustrate this point. Suppose that a petitioner files an application raising 10 meritorious claims challenging his conviction. The district court grants a conditional writ based on one of them, without reaching the remaining nine. Upon retrial, the state court commits the same 10 legal mistakes. ... Is an application presenting those same 10 claims - now based on the errors in the new judgment - "second or successive"? Under the opportunity-based rule advanced by the State and the dissent, the answer must be yes.Justice Anthony Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito. In his dissent, Kennedy criticized the majority's opinion for violating the purpose of the law, stating: "The Court ... reaches this conclusion by misreading precedents on the meaning of the phrase 'second or successive.' ... The Court then rewrites [the law's] text but refuses to grapple with the logical consequences of its own editorial judgment." Justice Stephen Breyer filed a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Sonia Sotomayor.
Petitioner Billy Joe Magwood was sentenced to death for murdering a county sheriff in 1979. The US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama conditionally granted the petitioner's writ on his original death sentence in 1985, ordering the state either to release or resentence him. Magwood was later sentenced to death for a second time. He challenged the second sentence and was again granted conditional relief, but the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overturned [opinion, PDF] the decision after finding that his claim should have been raised in the first petition. The court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] in the case in March after granting certiorari [JURIST report] in November.