The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-2 in Holland v. Florida [Cornell LII backgrounder] that the statute of limitations for a federal habeas corpus petition can be tolled where a state-appointed attorney fails to file in time despite repeated instructions from the client. The court held the one-year time limit for filing a habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) [28 USC § 2244(d) text] was subject to equitable tolling in appropriate cases. These cases include those where the petitioner has pursued his rights diligently and has faced some significant circumstance that stood in his way. In reversing the decision [opinion text] of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the court found that the standard applied by the lower court was too rigid. The lower court had held that tolling could not be applied in this case because "[p]ure professional negligence" could never be considered an extraordinary circumstance. In remanding to the lower court to apply the new standard, Justice Stephen Breyer explained:
The [Eleventh Circuit's] rule is difficult to reconcile with more general equitable principles in that it fails to recognize that, at least sometimes, professional misconduct that fails to meet the Eleventh Circuit's standard could nonetheless amount to egregious behavior and create an extraordinary circumstance that warrants equitable tolling. And, given the long history of judicial application of equitable tolling, courts can easily find precedents that can guide their judgments. Several lower courts have specifically held that unprofessional attorney conduct may, in certain circumstances, prove "egregious" and can be "extraordinary" even though the conduct in question may not satisfy the Eleventh Circuit's rule.Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas filed dissenting opinions. In his dissent, Scalia criticized the court's statutory interpretation, stating that if Congress had intended for there to be equitable tolling in AEDPA, they would have explicitly stated so. He went on to criticize the court's application of the new standard, stating:
Even if [the AEDPA] left room for equitable tolling in some situations, tolling surely should not excuse the delay here. Where equitable tolling is available, we have held that a litigant is entitled to it only if he has diligently pursued his rights and - the requirement relevant here - if "some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way." Because the attorney is the litigant's agent, the attorney's acts (or failures to act) within the scope of the representation are treated as those of his client, and thus such acts (or failures to act) are necessarily not extraordinary circumstances.Justice Samuel Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.
The petitioner, Albert Holland, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death in 1997, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed his conviction. Several years later, the court denied him post-conviction relief, but, due to a "breakdown" in communication between Holland and his state-appointed attorney, Holland did not become aware of this until several weeks after the time period under AEPDA had passed. During this time, his attorney had not filed a habeas petition despite repeated letters throughout the litigation in which Holland stated his desire to do so, and the state bar association refused Holland's numerous requests to remove the attorney from the case. The court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] in case in March and granted certiorari [cert. petition, PDF; JURIST report] in October.