Supreme Court rules on timing of habeas corpus appeals

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] issued a ruling [opinion, PDF] on Tuesday in Gonzalez v. Thaler [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report] interpreting two sections of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) [materials] and holding that a judgment becomes final for the purposes of habeas corpus review when the time for pursuing direct review to either state's high court or the Supreme Court expires. Additionally the court held that a federal district court's failure to cite a constitutional issue on a certificate of appealability (COA) as required by 28 USC § 2253(c) [text] does not deprive the court of appeals of subject matter jurisdiction to hear the habeas petitioner's appeal. Petitioner Rafael Gonzalez was convicted of murder in Texas and had his conviction affirmed by the state's intermediate appellate court in 2006. Gonzalez failed to file an appeal with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals [official website], the state's highest court for criminal appeals, and his period for discretionary review with the court expired on August 11, 2006. He filed a petition for habeas relief on January 24, 2008, alleging that a nearly 10-year delay between his indictment and trial violated his right to a speedy trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment [text] of the US Constitution. Both the district court and the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the habeas petition was barred due to failure to file the petition within one year of final judgment as required by 28 USC §2244(d)(1) [text]. In an 8-1 decision authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court concluded that §2244(d)(1) consists of two prongs, relating to distinct categories of petitioners—those seeking habeas relief at the end of a direct review, and those seeking habeas relief without exhausting direct reviews of appeals on the merits of the case. According to the court:

For petitioners who pursue direct review all the way to this Court, the judgment becomes final at the "conclusion of direct review"—when this Court affirms a conviction on the merits or denies a petition for certiorari. For all other petitioners, the judgment becomes final at the "expiration of the time for seeking such review"—when the time for pursuing direct review in this Court, or in state court, expires.
Justice Antonin Scalia authored the dissenting opinion in the case arguing that failure of a federal district court to identify a substantial constitutional violation as required by § 2253(c) should prevent the court of appeals from having jurisdiction and stating that the court's ruling "makes a hash of the statute" and its jurisdictional requirements.

The court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in November. During arguments, the petitioner argued that a COA that does not fully comply with all the requirements of the statute, nonetheless confers jurisdiction on the federal appeals court. Petitioner also argued that the one-year statute of limitations for federal habeas corpus review should not begin until the ruling is final according to State law, as opposed to a uniform federally-imposed definition of a final ruling. The state argued that, because the COA was incomplete due to the district court judge's error, it did not meet the requirements of the statute and, therefore, did not confer jurisdiction on the appeals court. The state also argued that the statute provides a two-prong to determine with the clock starts to run and that, even where that might start the clock running before state habeas corpus review becomes available, the clock should start nonetheless.

 

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