Whether a federal court should presume that a prisoner's filing of a state petition for writ of habeas corpus was timely because the state court gave no indication that the filing was untimely, or whether the federal court should engage in an independent determination of whether the filing was timely under state law.
Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), state prisoners have one year to file their federal writ of habeas corpus petitions after their state conviction becomes final, but the one-year limitations period may be tolled for "properly filed" state habeas petitions that are "pending." In 1991, a jury convicted Reginald Chavis of attempted first degree murder. After unsuccessfully appealing his conviction, Chavis filed two rounds of state habeas petitions. The courts denied all of Chavis's state petitions, and Chavis filed a federal habeas petition on August 30, 2000. The state claims that the one-year limitations period applicable to Chavis's federal habeas corpus petition expired during the three years that passed between his first round of petitions to the California Court of Appeal and the filing of his first habeas petition with the California Supreme Court. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, held that Chavis's petition was "pending" and thus entitled to tolling for the three-year interval. It based its decision of the fact that the California Supreme Court did not dismiss the petition as untimely but rather decided it on the merits.
The Supreme Court's ruling will turn on an interpretation of the term "pending." If the Court agrees with Chavis that the federal court should presume from a state court's silence that the petitioner's filing was "pending," then the Court will affirm the Ninth Circuit's ruling that the three-year interval was tolled. But if the Supreme Court finds that a federal court must conduct an independent determination of timeliness under state law, then the Court must remand this case for further proceedings to determine whether Chavis's petition would be considered timely under California law. This case is significant because it will determine what a federal court must do when the state court is silent on the issue of whether the prisoner's filing was timely under state law. Thus, it may have an impact on federalism, comity, and finality, as well as the intended function of the writ of habeas corpus.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
1. Did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals err in holding that a prisoner is entitled to tolling for a three-year interval between his first round petitions for writ of habeas corpus to the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court-an interval during which AEDPA took effect-because the California Supreme Court did not dismiss the petition as untimely, but summarily denied the petition without comment or citation?
2. Did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals contravene the Supreme Court's decision in Carey v. Saffold, 536 U.S. 214, 225 (2002), which held that the California Supreme Court's denial of a habeas petition "on the merits" does not itself "indicate that the petition was timely"?
On July 29, 1991, a jury in Sacramento County Superior Court convicted Reginald Chavis of attempted murder and sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Chavis v. LeMarque, 382 F.3d 921, 923 (9th Cir. 2004). Chavis appealed the conviction to the California Court of Appeal and California Supreme Court. Id. Both courts denied his appeal, the latter on October 28, 1992. Id.
Chavis then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Sacramento County Superior Court on May 14, 1993, and the court denied the petition on the merits on July 30, 1993. Id. On August 22, 1994, Chavis filed a habeas petition in the California Court of Appeal, which denied the petition on September 29, 1994. Id.
Three years later, on November 5, 1997, the California Supreme Court received Chavis's habeas petition, and on April 29, 1998, denied it without any comment or case citation. Id. The California Supreme Court's decision became final on May 29, 1998. Id.
Between December 15, 1998 and December 17, 1999, Chavis filed a second round of petitions in the Sacramento County Superior Court and California Supreme Court. Id. Both courts denied his petitions, and the latter's decision became final on April 28, 2000. Id. at 923?24.
On August 30, 2000, Chavis filed a federal habeas petition in the District Court for the Eastern District of California. Id. at 924. The magistrate judge made findings and recommendations that Chavis was not entitled to statutory tolling for state habeas petitions filed prior to the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") on April 24, 1996, and that because Chavis filed all subsequent state petitions more than one year after AEDPA's active date, Chavis's federal petition was barred. Id. The district court adopted the findings and recommendations in full on September 18, 2001. Id. Chavis appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that he is entitled to tolling for his state petitions. Id. The Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court's decision and held that Chavis is entitled to tolling. Id. The state appealed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The Ninth Circuit's Decision
According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the timeliness of Chavis's federal habeas petition depends on whether he is entitled to statutory tolling for each of his state habeas petitions. See Chavis v. LeMarque, 382 F.3d 921, 924-26 (9th Cir. 2004) (interpreting 28 U.S.C. ? 2244(d)(2)). The court determined that Chavis was entitled to tolling while his second round of state petitions was pending, even though the petitions were denied on procedural grounds, because a state court's ultimate decision is "pending" while the court considers it. See id. at 925. Under the Ninth Circuit's clarified definition, "a petition is clearly pending after it is filed with a state court, but before that court grants or denies the petition." See id. The court found that the state's definition of pending would create an unbearable amount of uncertainty for the habeas petitioner; he would not know whether he was entitled to tolling for a petition filed in state court until after the court granted or denied his petition. See id. They concluded that "so long as the state procedure for filing the habeas petition exists, the petition is pending while the state court considers it, whether the decision is ultimately on the merits or on procedural grounds." Id.
Furthermore, the court determined that Chavis is entitled to tolling for the three-year interval between his petitions to the California Court of Appeal and California Supreme Court because the California Supreme Court did not dismiss the petition as untimely, but decided it on the merits. See id. at 925-26.
Much of the state's argument rested on Carey v. Saffold, 536 U.S. 214 (2002), which it argued held that "where a state court does not expressly address the timeliness of a habeas petition, the federal court must independently determine whether the state petition was timely filed." See Petitioner's Brief at 15. Thus under Saffold, the state argued, Chavis's second round petitions were never pending in the state courts, even while the courts had the petitions under submission, because the state courts eventually denied the second round petitions for procedural reasons. See Chavis v. LeMarque, 382 F.3d 921, 924 (9th Cir. 2004). The Ninth Circuit disagreed, however, ruling that the Saffold decision was decided under a different context than the instant case. See id. at 925. The Ninth Circuit explained that the Saffold court was considering whether the word "pending" in the habeas statute applied to a time gap between the petitioner's habeas petitions in the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. See id. The issue was specific to California because the state requires petitioners to file separate writs at each court level, instead of appeals. See id. In addition, California uses a "reasonableness" standard rather than a strict time limit to determine whether the next writ was timely filed after the first writ was denied. Id.
AEDPA's one year statute of limitations is tolled while a prisoner is pursuing state collateral review. See 28 U.S.C. ? 2244(d). This provision was created to achieve a balance that "promotes the exhaustion of state remedies while respecting the interest in the finality of state court judgments." See Duncan v. Walker, 533 U.S. 167 (2001). The state argues that the Ninth Circuit's decision grants statutory tolling for the interval preceding the state habeas filing, no matter how lengthy. See Petitioner's Brief at 10. The state also contends that this conflicts with the decision in Saffold, which held that a court's decision on the merits does not in and of itself establish that a state court petition was timely filed. See id. at 12.
According to the state, the Ninth Circuit did not consider whether their presumption of timeliness would reach the correct result in most cases. See id. at 30. In California, most state petitions for a writ of habeas corpus are denied by appellate courts without timeliness findings or other explanation. See id. at 36. Thus under the state's interpretation of the Chavis decision, thousands of California state habeas petitions would be considered timely by the federal district court and all would receive statutory tolling for the period preceding their filing, no matter how lengthy the time period. See id. Instead, the state hopes that the Supreme Court will reverse the Ninth Circuit decision and rule that federal courts must determine for themselves whether a summarily denied habeas petition was timely filed before allowing statutory tolling for intervals between filings. The state urges that the Ninth Circuit should have reviewed Chavis's Supreme Court habeas petition, filed after a three-year delay, and concluded that it was untimely. See id. at 47.
Chavis argues that the "federal court should presume that a prior state filing was 'pending' under ? 2244(d)(2) unless the state court has given some indication that the prior state petition was not timely filed under state law." Respondent's Brief at 14 (emphasis in original). Chavis believes that Saffold failed to give instruction to the Court of Appeal "regarding what to do if it could not determine what the California Supreme Court meant by the ambiguous language." Id. Therefore, the Saffold court left open the question presented in this case. Id.
Chavis contends that the Supreme Court here must select the rule that is most consistent with the purpose of AEDPA. See id. Congress, in enacting AEDPA, was seeking to further principles of federalism, comity, and finality. Id. By preventing state courts from second-guessing state courts' determinations of state law and requiring states to give some indication that a state petition is untimely (rather than requiring federal courts to conduct an independent determination of state law), Chavis's approach furthers the principle of federalism. See id. at 15. "[I]t is far less intrusive to require state courts to give some indication that a state petition is untimely than it is for federal courts to conduct an independent determination of state law." Id. Moreover, by encouraging prisoners to exhaust state remedies in the manner provided by the state, and discouraging protective federal filings and premature state filings, Chavis's rule promote principles of comity. See id. Finally, if the Court rules for Chavis, there will be no additional delay or burden placed on the federal courts where a constitutional violation has been alleged. Id. This will further the principle of finality.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which restricted the ability of prisoners to file claims for writs of habeas corpus by, among other things, instituting a one-year statute of limitations on claims. See 28 U.S.C. ? 2244(d)(1). AEDPA's one-year statute of limitations is tolled in various circumstances, specifically, while a "properly filed" application for post-conviction or other collateral review is "pending." See 28 U.S.C. ? 2244(d)(2). This case presents an important opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify the application of AEDPA's tolling provision.
According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, federal courts should presume that a prior state habeas filing was "pending" under AEDPA's tolling provision if the state court that received the petition was silent as to its timeliness. See Chavis v. LeMarque, 382 F.3d 921, 924 (9th Cir. 2004). But the state argues that a federal court, rather than simply presume timeliness, must conduct its own independent analysis of state law in order to determine whether or not the prisoner's prior state filing was timely. See Petitioner's Brief at 9. This case is thus of particular interest to both prisoners and federal and state courts.
If the Supreme Court affirms the Ninth Circuit's decision, there will be a presumption of timeliness for every petition that state courts deny without addressing the issue of timeliness-no matter how long the prisoner delayed before filing the petition in state court or how unreasonable the delay was. See Petitioner's Brief at 36?37. Thus, this presumption arguably undermines Congress's intent behind the AEDPA to curb delays. See id. at 37. This in turn will frustrate the state's interest in finality, which means "that innocence or guilt be vindicated without delay." See id. at 38. This presumption may also overburden state courts, which may feel compelled to rule on the timeliness of all habeas petitions so that the federal courts will never have to grudgingly resort to this presumption. See id. Moreover, although a presumption naturally has the positive effect of increasing judicial efficiency for federal courts, it limits the power of the federal courts to review state court judgments and may compromise the ultimate goal of courts: to reach the correct decision. See Petitioner's Brief at 38?39.
A decision in favor of a timeliness presumption, however, may promote federalism and comity by preventing federal courts from "second-guessing" and intervening in state courts' determinations of state law. See Respondent's Brief at 28, 32. Furthermore, a presumption of timeliness is favorable towards prisoners, giving them another chance to vindicate their rights; thus, it arguably preserves the intended function of the writ of habeas corpus, which is to protect individual rights that the United States Constitution embodies. See Respondent's Brief at 45?46.
Conversely, if the Supreme Court reverses the Ninth Circuit's decision, federal courts must make an independent determination of whether a prisoner's state habeas petition was timely under state law. See Petitioner's Brief at 43. Independent determinations of state law by federal courts would preserve their duty to review state court judgments. See Petitioner's Brief at 38?39. Additionally, independent review by federal courts may encourage prisoners to file more promptly than a presumption of timeliness would, thereby advancing judicial efficiency and preserving the purpose of AEDPA to curb delays. See Petitioner's Brief at 37.
But independent determinations of state law by federal courts may also have the negative effect of allowing federal courts to overstep the bounds of federalism and comity. See Respondent's Brief at 28, 32. Furthermore, a decision in favor of the state may unfavorably impact a prisoner's constitutional rights: in the wake of a state court's silence on the issue of timeliness, federal courts may misconstrue state law such that prisoners who have fully complied with the AEDPA's one-year limitation may nevertheless lose any opportunity to vindicate their rights in federal court. See Respondent's Brief at 45.
If the court affirms the Ninth Circuit's decision, federal courts will presume the timeliness of each petition filed in the state court that was denied without comment. If the court rules for the state, federal courts will have to make an independent determination of the timeliness of summarily denied state court petitions. This decision will have an impact on the balance of federal-state power and on the specific Constitutional rights of prisoners. It will also confirm or undermine the ability of AEDPA to restrict federal habeas petitions through the implementation of the one-year statute of limitations.