Supreme Court rules on 'actual innocence' in federal habeas petitions

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in McQuiggin v. Perkins [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report] that "actual innocence ... serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass" in a federal habeas action. In Schlup v. Delo (1995) and House v. Bell (2006) [opinions], the Supreme Court held that a convincing showing of actual innocence enabled habeas petitioners to overcome a procedural bar to consideration of the merits of their constitutional claims. In this case, the court considered the question in the context of 28 USC § 2244(d)(1) [text], the statute of limitations on federal habeas petitions prescribed in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The question before the court was, "if the petitioner does not file her federal habeas petition, at the latest, within one year of 'the date on which the factual predicate of the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence,' ... can the time bar be overcome by a convincing showing that she committed no crime?" In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court held that:

[A]ctual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass whether the impediment is a procedural bar, as it was in Schlup and House, or, as in this case, expiration of the statute of limitations. We caution, however, that tenable actual-innocence gateway pleas are rare. ... Our opinion clarifies that a federal habeas court, faced with an actual-innocence gateway claim, should count unjustifiable delay on a habeas petitioner's part, not as an absolute barrier to relief, but as a factor in determining whether actual innocence has been reliably shown.
The court vacated the judgment [text] of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas and by Justice Samuel Alito as to Parts I, II and III. According to Scalia, "The gaping hole in today's opinion for the Court is its failure to answer the crucial question upon which all else depends: What is the source of the Court's power to fashion what it concedes is an "exception" to this clear statutory command?" Scalia argues that the court lacks such power.

 

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