Gonzalez v. Thaler (10-895)

Oral argument: 
November 2, 2011

Oral argument: Nov. 2, 2011

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Oct. 6, 2010)

Petitioner Rafael Arriaza Gonzalez alleged that his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated when he was charged with murder ten years after an alleged shooting occurred. Although Gonzalez did not appeal his case to the Texas state court of last resort, he later petitioned for federal habeas review. The district court held that Gonzalez’s petition was time-barred by 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A) because it was filed more than one year after the period to appeal to the highest Texas state court expired. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability, but did not indicate which underlying constitutional claim was at issue in the certificate of appealability. The parties now disagree on whether the Fifth Circuit had jurisdiction over Gonzalez’s case after issuing the certificate of appealability, and which event starts the one-year clock for federal habeas review. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will affect petitioners’ ability to seek federal habeas review; it will also affect the allocation of judicial resources in reviewing certificates of appealability and federal habeas claims.

Questions presented

1. Was there jurisdiction to issue a certificate of appealability under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c) and to adjudicate petitioner's appeal?

2. Was the application for writ of habeas corpus out of time under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1) due to “the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review”?

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Issues

1. Did the Court of Appeals meet all of the requirements necessary to issue a valid certificate of appealability and, therefore, to hear the petitioner’s case?

2. Did the one-year statute of limitations for filing a writ of habeas corpus begin running on the day that the state court made its judgment final, or on the day that the period for a prisoner to appeal to the state court of last resort expired?

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Facts

In June 1995, Roberto Velasquez was murdered outside a Texas apartment building; his sister identified Petitioner Rafael Arriaza Gonzalez as the shooter. See Gonzalez v. Texas, No. 05-05-01140-CR (Tex.App. July 12, 2006). Texas investigators issued a warrant for Gonzalez’s arrest and searched for him at several Dallas addresses, but were unsuccessful in locating Gonzalez. See id. In August 1995, Gonzalez was reportedly seen in Guatemala, and in 2001 Gonzalez applied for a visa to return to the United States. See id. Despite granting the visa, officials did not notify the Dallas Sheriff’s Office of Gonzalez’s whereabouts until months later, when Gonzalez was imprisoned in Guatemala for unrelated murders. See id. After being extradited to the United States in 2004, Gonzalez was tried for the 1995 murder of Velasquez. See id. Gonzalez argued that the 10 year delay in bringing charges against him violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. See id. However, a Texas jury convicted Gonzalez of murder in 2005. See id.

The Texas Court of Appeals affirmed Gonzalez’s conviction. See Gonzalez v. Thaler, 623 F.3d 222, 223 (5th Cir. 2010). Afterward, Gonzalez did not petition for discretionary review within thirty days, as required by the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure. See id. Because of this failure, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Gonzalez’s state habeas corpus petition. See id.

In January 2008, Gonzalez filed a federal habeas petition with the District Court for the Northern District of TexasSee id. Under Section 2244(d) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), state prisoners’ petitions for federal habeas relief are subject to a one-year statute of limitations that runs from the “date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review.” See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A).

The magistrate judge concluded that Gonzalez’s 2008 habeas petition was time-barred by the one-year statute of limitations, which the judge found began running when the 30-day discretionary appeals period expired on August 11, 2006. See Gonzalez v. Thaler, 623 F.3d at 223–24. The magistrate drew this calculation from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decision in Roberts v. Cockrell, which held that a judgment becomes final at the end of direct review, and that a state mandate is irrelevant. See id. at 224. The district court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation and overruled Gonzalez’s objection that the one-year statute of limitations should run from the date the intermediate state court’s mandate was issued: September 26, 2006. See id.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability (“COA”), considering whether Roberts was overruled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Florida, in order to determine which date triggered the start of the statute of limitations and, ultimately, whether Gonzalez’s petition was timely filed. See id. at 224. In Lawrence, the Court held that the AEDPA’s statute of limitations is only suspended while a petitioner’s habeas application is under review by a state court: the clock begins to run after the state court issues its mandate, because no further state review remains. See id. at 225.

The Fifth Circuit held that Lawrence did not overrule Roberts because the Court in Lawrence had been addressing a different section of the AEDPA, which did not apply to the statute of limitations at issue in this case. See id. Therefore, the Fifth Circuit found that the statute of limitations began running on August 12, 2006, the day following the 30-day discretionary appeal deadline. See id. Discounting the 125 days from July 20 to November 21, 2007, during which Gonzalez was petitioning for habeas relief in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the statute of limitations expired on December 17, 2007. See id. Thus, the Fifth Circuit held Gonzalez was time-barred because he filed the federal habeas petition on January 24, 2008. See id. Under Gonzalez’s interpretation of the statute, time began to run on September 26, 2006, the day that the intermediate state court’s mandate was issued and, excluding the same 125 days, expired on January 30, 2008. See id. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on June 13, 2011.

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Discussion

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), establishes a one-year statute of limitations on federal habeas petitions, which runs from the conclusion of state direct review “or the expiration of the time for seeking such review.” See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A). To appeal the denial of a habeas petition, petitioners must obtain a certificate of appealability (“COA”) by showing the denial of a constitutional right. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c). Petitioner Gonzalez argues that prisoners’ rights will be adversely affected if state law does not determine when direct review concludes, possibly leaving some litigants without redress due to mere procedural errors. See Brief for Petitioner, Rafael Arriaza Gonzalez at 33, 43; Amici Curiae of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Network (“NACDL”) in Support of Petitioner at 30-33. In opposition, Respondent Rick Thaler states that a uniform federal rule should determine when direct review concludes, as this would help federal courts adjudicate efficiently, avoiding questions of state law while still preserving litigants’ access to courts. See Brief for Respondent at 10, 3941.

Effects on Litigants

Gonzalez argues that procedural defects should not harm diligent litigants, and that a uniform federal rule would put such litigants in a procedural bind. See Brief for Petitioner at 42–43. Because habeas relief implicates essential constitutional protections, Gonzalez contends his actions as a diligent litigant should provide him with a fair opportunity to petition for federal habeas relief, even if his COA contains procedural errors. See id. 30–31, 42–43. Gonzalez also argues that a uniform federal rule determining when the AEDPA’s statute of limitations begins running would trap petitioners in a procedural bind: the federal rule could start the clock before a state allows petitioners to begin collateral proceedings. See id. at 43–45; Amici Curiae of NACDL at 30-31.

In response, Thaler argues that a federal rule would keep petitioners’ rights intact because litigants with improper COAs can still seek a valid COA. See Brief for Respondent at 10. Thaler asserts habeas petitioners can obtain new COAs that comply with the AEDPA and appeal again, therefore eliminating the risk that petitioners with substantial constitutional claims will lose their opportunity to be heard. See id. at 10. Further, Thaler contends that addressing the merits of defective COAs would be detrimental to both states and litigants. See id. at 27. Thaler states that, if litigants without potentially meritorious claims, such as Gonzalez, were allowed to appeal, it would waste limited judicial resources on meritless petitions, diminishing the time and resources available to habeas petitioners with meritorious claims. See id. at 27. 

Effects on the Judicial System

Thaler argues that COAs should only be re-examined where there is a procedural defect, in order to avoid a drain on judicial resources. See Brief for Respondent at 19. Courts will not waste resources examining the substance of a particular COA, Thaler asserts, as procedural defects will be facially obvious. See id. Thaler states that this approach would include the reconsideration of COAs lacking a required component, such as specific findings on the denial of a constitutional right. See id. Thaler contends that judicial resources should not be spent reviewing a COA where habeas relief will be denied due to a weak underlying claim; he identifies Gonzalez’s speedy trial claim as weak, since it faces “an insurmountable procedural obstacle” because Gonzalez did not exhaust his state appeals. See id. at 2627. Additionally, Thaler argues that a uniform federal rule for the AEDPA’s statute of limitations will preserve judicial resources; federal courts will not have to spend time and money determining at what point an unclear state law dictates that direct review concludes. See id. at 5354.

In support of Gonzalez, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Network (collectively “NACDL”) argue that reviewing the procedural soundness of COAs, instead of addressing their merits, will drain judicial resources. See Amici Curiae of NACDL at 12. NACDL states that the AEDPA establishes a low threshold for issuing a COA, requiring only one judge that finds a reasonably debatable constitutional claim to validate the issuance. See id. at 11–12. Once the COA has been issued, NACDL asserts it is consistent with the goals of the AEDPA to have courts consider the merits, rather than waste resources examining the issuance of the COA. See id. NACDL argues Gonzalez’s claim met the standard for the issuance of a COA because it is at least debatable whether his right to a speedy trial was denied. See id. at 16–17. The NACDL argues that allowing COAs to be issued more broadly, encompassing claims like Gonzalez’s, will best provide adequate access to the judicial system, especially given the unsophisticated background of many pro se petitioners. See id. at 5.

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Analysis

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) section 2253(c), a Circuit Court must issue a certificate of appealability (“COA”) in order to have jurisdiction over a habeas proceeding. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c). Further, for a federal habeas petition to be timely under AEDPA section 2244(d)(1)(A), the petition must be filed within one year of the latter of two dates: the conclusion of direct review of the state judgment or the expiration of the time to seek direct review. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A). Petitioner Gonzalez argues that the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit properly granted a COA, because Gonzalez substantially showed that his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was denied, and that jurisdiction should not be withheld as a result of the Fifth Circuit’s failure to indicate the constitutional right in the COA. See Brief for Petitioner, Rafael Arriaza Gonzalez at 14, 17. Gonzalez also asserts that his petition was timely filed under either date, pursuant to the controlling state law. See id. at 33, 51. In response, Respondent Thaler contends that, because the Fifth Circuit did not indicate the constitutional claim in the COA, the COA is ineffective and the Fifth Circuit lacked jurisdiction over Gonzalez’s appeal. See Brief for Respondent, Rick Thaler at 35. Thaler further argues that the Fifth Circuit was correct in holding that Gonzalez’s petition was time barred under the applicable uniform federal rule. See id. at 41–42.

Jurisdiction Under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)

Gonzalez argues that the Fifth Circuit had jurisdiction over his appeal because the court properly granted a COA in accordance with AEDPA section 2253(c). See Brief for Petitioner at 1415. Gonzalez contends that, by substantially demonstrating the denial of his right to a speedy trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, he fulfilled the requirements of section 2253(c)(2), and that the COA was properly granted. See id. at 1617. Gonzalez asserts that, even if he did not sufficiently show a denial of the right to a speedy trial, jurisdiction should be unaffected because section 2253(c)(2) does not expressly or implicitly indicate that it impacts jurisdiction. See id. at 22. Gonzalez also states that section 2253(c)(3)'s requirement that the court “indicate” the underlying constitutional claim as a part of the COA is not a prerequisite for jurisdiction. See id. at 25. Finally, Gonzalez argues that, even if the Fifth Circuit did not have jurisdiction, the Supreme Court can hear this case because the Court may issue its own COA under section 2253(c) in order to promote the resolution of important issues. See id. at 2930.

Thaler argues that the Fifth Circuit lacked jurisdiction because the COA was improperly granted, and that the Supreme Court should remand the case back to the Fifth Circuit for dismissal. See Brief for Respondent at 35. Drawing an analogy to a search warrant, which is invalid if it does not include a description of the evidence sought, Thaler contends that a COA without an indication of the petitioners constitutional claim is invalid and cannot confer jurisdiction. See id. at 2426. Further, Thaler argues that Gonzalezs constitutional claim would not warrant the issuance of a COA anyway, since Gonzalez failed to exhaust his opportunities to appeal the alleged constitutional violation in state court. See id. at 31. Thaler also argues that the circuit court judge should not have issued a COA for Gonzalez’s case. See id. at 26. Thaler states that, in order to obtain a COA where the district court has denied relief on procedural grounds, as it did in Gonzalez's case, petitioners must demonstrate their constitutional claim and provide some showing that habeas relief is actually attainable. See id. at 2830. Thaler asserts that the COA should be denied because Gonzalez did not show that he was denied a constitutional right, or that his habeas petition is not precluded on procedural grounds. See id. at 3031.

Time Limit on Federal Habeas Petitions Under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A)

Gonzalez argues that his petition is not time barred under AEDPA section 2244(d)(1)(A) because that section states that a conviction is deemed final on the latter of two dates: the “conclusion of direct review” or the “expiration of the time for seeking such review.” See Brief for Petitioner at 32. Gonzalez asserts that both the plain text of section 2244(d)(1)(A) and the Supreme Court's treatment of other provisions in the section support the incorporation of state law definitions to determine when direct review concludes. See id. at 3334, 3738. Therefore, Gonzalez contends that his petition was timely because under Texas state law the conclusion of direct review occurred when the intermediate court issued its mandate, which was within one year of Gonzalez’s petition. See id. at 33. Even if the court used the second date, the “expiration of the time for seeking such review,” Gonzalez argues that his petition would still be timely because the time frame for filing a habeas petition includes the 90-day period to file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court; therefore, Gonzalez maintains that his petition is not time barred because it was filed less than a year after the time period expired. See id. at 5153. Finally, Gonzalez asserts that, although certiorari generally must be sought from a “state court of last resort,” the Supreme Court retains the right to review intermediate state court decisions, so Gonzalez would not be barred from seeking Supreme Court review from the intermediate state court. See id. at 5354.

However, Thaler argues that the plain text of section 2244(d)(1)(A) does not indicate that a conviction becomes final on the latter of the two dates provided by that section. See Brief for Respondent at 4142. Thaler supports the Fifth Circuits interpretation that, when a petitioner appeals to the Supreme Court, the conviction becomes final on the conclusion of direct review; however, when a petitioner such as Gonzalez does not exhaust all opportunities to appeal, the conviction becomes final when the time to appeal to the next highest state court expires. See id. at 43–45. Thaler asserts that, because Gonzalez failed to appeal beyond the Texas Court of Appeals, his conviction became final (and the one-year time period under section 2244(d)(1)(A) began) when his opportunity to appeal to the next state court expired. See id. at 44. Under this interpretation, the time period ended before Gonzalez filed his federal habeas petition. See id. Thaler also notes that Gonzalezs failure to appeal to the states highest court means that the time to seek direct review does not include the 90-day period to petition for certiorari; this is because the Supreme Court only has jurisdiction to review cases appealed from a state court of last resort. See id. at 56–57. It follows, Thaler contends, that, because the Court would not have been able to review Gonzalez’s case if he had appealed directly and bypassed the highest state court, Gonzalez should not be able to include the 90-day period in the one-year time frame under section 2244(d)(1)(A). See id.

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Conclusion

In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit met all the requirements to issue a certificate of appealability ("COA") and obtain jurisdiction over the case. The Court will also consider whether the one-year statute of limitations on federal habeas claims begins to run when a state court makes its judgment final or when the period for a litigant to appeal to the state court of last resort expires. Petitioner Gonzalez contends that jurisdiction was proper because he met all the requirements for the issuance of a COA pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c). However, Respondent Thaler argues that the COA is invalid because it failed to specify the denial of a constitutional right. Gonzalez also argues the statute of limitations begins running on the latter of two dates: when direct review becomes final or when the time for seeking discretionary review expires. On the other hand, Thaler contends that the statutory language does not indicate a last-in-time rule. Gonzalez asserts that, because states do not finalize their judgments in the same way, state law (rather than a uniform federal rule) should determine the conclusion of direct review. Thaler argues for the application of a uniform federal rule indicating that, where a petitioner does not seek discretionary review in the highest state court, the judgment becomes final when the time for seeking such review expires. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will affect the ability of litigants to seek federal habeas review, especially where a COA suffers from procedural defects, and the allocation of judicial resources in the review of COAs and federal habeas claims.

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Authors

Prepared by: Cheryl Blake and Jennifer Uren

Edited by: Jacqueline Bendert

Additional Sources

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