The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled unanimously [opinion, PDF] Tuesday in Wood v. Milyard [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that federal courts of appeals, like district courts, have the authoritythough not the obligationto raise a forfeited timeliness defense on their own initiative in exceptional cases. The court had been asked to decide if the prosecution failing to raise a statute of limitations argument in response to plaintiff's writ of habeas corpus is an error that can be overturned. The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruling [opinion text] barred Patrick Wood's petition for writ of habeas corpus based on its timeliness. In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court reversed:
In short, the State knew it had an "arguable" statute of limitations defense, ... yet it chose, in no uncertain terms, to refrain from interposing a timeliness "challenge" to Wood's petition. The District Court therefore reached and decided the merits of the petition. The Tenth Circuit should have done so as well.Justice Clarence Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia. Thomas believes that a court of appeals does not have discretion to consider sua sponte a forfeited limitations defense.
The court heard arguments [JURIST report] in the case in February. Wood's attorney argued that the state of Colorado had acted strategically in failing to raise the claim and could not be rewarded for this. The Solicitor General of Colorado argued, in response, that the Supreme Court should, "recognize that courts are not bound by a State's failure to properly argue and preserve a procedural bar to a habeas claim; and second, to the extent there is an exception to that rule for deliberate waivers, the court should apply the common rule that a waiver must be unequivocal."