Walker v. Martin


Whether a discretionary, case-by-case procedural bar for “untimely” habeas corpus petitions may be deemed “adequate” under the adequate state ground doctrine.

Oral argument: 
November 29, 2010

Charles Martin is serving life imprisonment for the robbery and first-degree murder of Charles Stapleton. After exhausting his direct appeals, Martin filed a petition for habeas corpus in California state court, alleging that his trial counsel was ineffective. The California Supreme Court eventually dismissed the petition under the state’s “timeliness” rule, which bars claims filed after “substantial delay.” Martin then filed a habeas corpus claim in federal court on similar grounds. The federal district court found that the state timeliness grounds were “adequate” for dismissal of the federal case. Under the adequate state grounds doctrine, a federal court will not review the decision of a state court if the federal court’s decision would have no impact on the case. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the state had failed to prove that California’s timeliness rule was sufficiently clear and consistently applied so as to be an adequate state bar. Martin argues that the Ninth Circuit was correct in its ruling, while Petitioner James Walker counters that the rule is indeed consistently applied. If the Supreme Court finds the rule adequate, this will likely increase denials of federal habeas corpus petitions; if the rule is not adequate, however, California may be required to use a more precise standard in determining what constitutes an untimely petition.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Under state law in California, a prisoner may be barred from collaterally attacking his conviction when the prisoner "substantially delayed" filing his habeas petition. In federal habeas corpus proceedings, is such a state law "inadequate" to support a procedural bar because (1) the federal court believes that the rule is vague and (2) the state failed to prove that its courts "consistently" exercised their discretion when applying the rule in other cases?


All California courts, both state and federal, have original jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions. See Brief for Respondent, Charles Martin at 7. However, if any court finds that a petitioner’s claims are procedurally barred, it may deny the claim with a “summary denial,” which often includes only a shorthand reference to case law and little to no reason for the denial. See Id. at 8–9. California’s “timeliness” bar allows a court to deny a petitioner’s claim if the petitioner brings the claim after “substantial delay” without showing good cause for the delay, actual prejudice, or a compelling case of actual innocence. See Brief for Petitioner, James Walker at 16.

On August 21, 1995, Charles Martin was convicted of the robbery and first-degree murder of Charles Stapleton. See Martin v. Walker, 2008 WL 652131 at *1 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 10, 2008). Martin received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. See id. Martin was unsuccessful in his direct appeals, and his conviction became final on July 15, 1997. See Brief for Respondent at 1–2.

In 1998, Martin filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in state court, arguing that he received ineffective legal representation and that his trial jury was improperly selected. See Brief for Petitioner at 4. His petition was eventually denied by the California Supreme Court on January 27, 1999. See Brief for Respondent at 4.

Martin then filed a federal habeas corpus petition in the federal district court. See Brief for Petitioner at 4. Under federal habeas corpus law, a state prisoner challenging his sentence in federal court must first exhaust all of his remedies in state court before proceeding to the federal level. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b). The federal district court determined that Martin’s federal habeas petition contained additional claims that he did not argue in state court, and granted Martin a stay of federal proceedings so he could exhaust his remedies at the California Supreme Court. See Brief for Petitioner at 4. On September 11, 2002, the California Supreme Court denied Martin’s new petition on “timeliness” grounds, holding that Martin had substantially delayed in bringing these particular challenges to his state court conviction. See Id. at 5–6.

Martin brought his case back to federal court in 2003, raising six claims in his amended petition. See Brief for Petitioner at 6. The district court denied the petition in March 2005, ruling that claims 4 through 6 of Martin’s claims were all procedurally barred since they had been forfeited in state court under the “timeliness” bar, and holding that the bar could be enforced in federal court because Martin had failed to demonstrate that applying the state procedural bar would be inconsistent. See Id. at 6–7.

Martin appealed the district court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the federal court could not use the state court’s timeliness bar because it was applied indiscriminately and thus was not an adequate basis for denying his federal habeas claim. See Brief for Petitioner at 7. Under the adequate states grounds doctrine of, a federal court may not review the decision of a state court if the federal court’s decision would have no impact on the case. See Catherine Struve, Direct and Collateral Federal Court Review of the Adequacy of State Procedural Rules at 250–51. The federal court cannot change the result because the state court’s decision was based on a valid state law that is independent of any federal issue; therefore, the state procedural rule is deemed “adequate” to support the dismissal of the federal case. See Id. However, a state procedural bar may be inadequate to prevent federal review in certain circumstances, including if the law is applied arbitrarily. See Id. at 251–52.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, remanding the case back to that court and directing it to determine the adequacy of California’s timeliness rule. See Id. On remand, the district court again denied Martin’s petition, holding that California’s timeliness bar was adequate because it had been consistently applied and adhered to by the state. See Brief for Respondent at 6.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals again reversed, holding that the government failed to prove that (a) California “operated under clear standards” for determining what qualified as “substantial delay” and (b) California’s timeliness bar was sufficiently clear. See Martin v. Walker, 357 Fed. Appx. 793 (9th Cir. 2009). The Supreme Court granted certiorari on June 21, 2010 to decide whether California’s application of its timeliness bar is “adequate,” and thus can be used by a federal court. See Walker v. Martin, 130 S. Ct. 3464 (2010).


California’s procedural bar gives a court the ability to deny a petitioner’s claim if the court deems the petitioner has brought the claim after substantial delay and without showing good cause for the delay, actual prejudice, or a compelling case of actual innocence. See Brief for Petitioner, James Walker at 16. At issue in this case is the adequacy of California’s “timeliness” bar for state habeas corpus petitions as it is applied to later federal habeas corpus petitions. In particular, this case will deal with the question of whether or not California’s bar is inadequate because it is vague and because it was inconsistently applied in other cases. See Brief for Respondent, Charles Martin at 28.

Does California’s timeliness bar provide adequate notice?

Petitioner James Walker contends that, as defined by the Supreme Court, fair notice is obtained when the state gives a person a reasonable understanding of what is required to comply with a state procedural rule. See Brief for Petitioner at 9. Walker explains that procedural rules whose existence a plaintiff could not be fairly expected to be aware of are the kinds of procedural rules that have been deemed to give inadequate notice. See Id. at 19. Walker further contends that procedural rules which are novel in nature or which preserve mere formalities, would also fail to be considered adequate. See Id. Additionally, Walker points out, an inadequate procedural rule would also be one that is inconsistently or irregularly applied. See Id. at 20. Finally, Walker attests that a procedural rule that comes into existence after a plaintiff’s appeal, and which is retroactively imposed upon him, would also be an inadequate rule. See Id. at 21. Unlike these examples, Walker contends that California’s timeliness rule provides fair notice that plaintiffs must act reasonably and with diligence, and must present their claims “as promptly as the circumstances allow.” See Id. at 14.

Conversely, Respondent Charles Martin argues that California’s procedural bar is unfairly vague and insufficient to give plaintiffs adequate notice, and invites arbitrary, ad hoc, or discriminatory denials of petitioners’ habeas corpus claims. See Brief for Respondent at 16. Martin maintains that by requiring that a petitioner show “substantial delay” or the existence of “good cause” for the delay in their habeas petition, California is putting petitioners at risk for having their claims barred without providing them with adequate means for distinguishing what time spans qualify as substantial delays and which ones don’t. See Id. Martin further argues that none of the existing California case law provides any help on this issue. See Id. at 9. Martin points out that in the majority of California cases that hold a petitioner’s claim cannot be heard due to the procedural bar, there is no rationale, reason, or explanation that specifies why the petitioners’ delays did not qualify as a “substantial delay.” See Id. Martin posits that although there are cases that provide some guidance as to what qualifies as “good cause” for delay, these cases are only applicable to petitioners convicted of capital offenses. See Id. at 15.

Is the reasonableness standard proper here?

Walker argues that the Ninth Circuit’s demand for a mathematical determination of what is “reasonable” and “prompt” incorrectly requires California to apply an unfairly restrictive and mechanical standard. See Brief for Petitioner at 10. Walker maintains that California’s reasonableness standard—couched in terms of promptness, justification, and substantial delay—provides adequate notice to petitioners. See Id. at 38. This is especially apparent, Walker argues, since the same reasonableness standard is used in tort law, the Federal Securities Act, and in self-defense cases. See Id. at 39. Walker maintains that if a reasonableness standard is adequate for notice in these other areas of law, the standard shouldn’t become inadequate when it is employed in a state procedural rule. See Id.Furthermore, Walker contends that a procedural rule that is not mathematical in nature actually favors a petitioner because it allows for flexibility and for the California courts to correct any miscarriages of justice that may occur. See Id. at 14.

Alternatively, Martin maintains that the Ninth Circuit’s demand for a more precise rule is not inconsistent with the state’s desire to be able to exercise discretion when deciding cases that involve the procedural bar. See Brief of Respondent at 17. In fact, Martin argues, the Ninth Circuit is simply requiring that the state’s procedural bar simply be both discretionary and adequate. See Id. Furthermore, Martin argues that the fact that the legal term “reasonableness” is used and understood in other legal contexts does not make it an acceptable or understandable term for use in California’s procedural bar. See Id. at 16. Martin argues that this is so because ambiguity and meaning depends on the context; a legal term that is readily understandable in one context will not necessarily be understood in another. See Id.

Walker further insists that the California procedural bar also furthers a legitimate state interest. See Brief for Petitioner at 10. He contends that California’s interests in maintaining the finality of its judgments and in the protection of its scarce judicial resources are both clearly legitimate and therefore fulfill the adequacy requirement. See Id. at 14–15. Alternatively, Walker posits that the California procedural bar deserves a presumption of adequacy. See Id. at 15. Walker urges that this is so because if federal courts did not give state procedural rules a presumption of adequacy, this would undermine a state’s enforcement of its own laws. See Id. at 28–29. Walker further argues that presuming the adequacy of state procedural rules and placing the burden on petitioners to prove inadequacy is consistent with the burden of proof applicable in many other habeas corpus contexts. See Id. at 31.

In contrast, Martin argues that since California is raising the procedural bar as an affirmative defense, the state has the burden of proof. See Brief of Respondent at 17. Martin points out that the Federal Rules of Evidence, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and all of the applicable case law make it clear that when a party raises an affirmative defense to any claim, it is appropriate for that party to have the burden of proving the defense, without the benefit of any presumptions in its favor. See Id. Martin argues that Walker has implicitly agreed with this fact, and that since he cannot meet his burden of proving that the California procedural bar is adequate, the Ninth Circuit’s holding that the procedural bar is actually inadequate was correct. See Id.


In this case, the Supreme Court must decide whether California’s “timeliness” rule for habeas corpus petitions is sufficiently “adequate” for use in a federal court. The Court’s decision will determine the meaning of the requirement that state procedural rules be “firmly established and regularly applied” under the adequate state grounds doctrine.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) argues that strict, non-discretionary application of the timeliness rule has the potential to produce unjust results by not allowing a state to provide its own remedies on a case-by-case basis. See Brief of Amicus Curiae The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Support of Petitioner at 7. The CJLF additionally argues that the “adequacy” requirement for procedural rules should be eliminated altogether and replaced with a requirement that (1) claimants have fair notice that a particular rule exists and (2) claimants have a “reasonable opportunity” to present their federal claims. See id. at 15. The group contends that the current rule is vague, and that under it a prisoner may be able to evade procedural requirements and thus undercut the values that they serve. See id. at 17.

In arguing for a determination that California’s “timeliness” rule is inconsistently applied, the Habeas Corpus Resource Center ("HCRC") studied the alleged inconsistencies that California currently exercises in applying the rule. SeeBrief of Amicus Curiae the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in Support of Respondent at 22. The results of the study, HCRC contends, show that under the rule, the California Supreme Court applies a completely arbitrary approach to deciding when a habeas petition has been filed in an untimely manner. See id. at 30. Thus, replacing the rule with one that explains time limitations for habeas petitions would better prevent courts from arbitrarily barring petitions. See id. at 14. The Federal Defenders for the Central, Eastern, and Northern Districts of California as well as the Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc. argue that the current rule allows for not only arbitrary, but discriminatory enforcement of how much time constitutes “substantial delay.” See Brief of Amici Curiae Federal Defenders for the Central, Eastern, Northern Districts of California and Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc. (“Federal Defenders”) in Support of Respondent at 31.

James Walker argues that if federal courts force California to state the timeliness rule in all of its detail, California would be deprived of the discretion that those same courts have deemed “necessary and proper” in the past. See Brief of Petitioner, James Walker at 41. Further, Walker argues that allowing the federal courts to scrutinize discretionary state procedural rules would amount to “untenable second guessing” and could allow for a federal court to declare a rule inadequate when the court would normally consider a decision made under that rule a valid and final judgment. See id. at 27. Considering the strong state interest in the finality of state criminal convictions, Walker contends, the federal judiciary should presume all state procedural rules to be adequate. See id. at 28.

The Federal Defenders contend that a clearer, more enunciated timeliness rule would ensure that those filing habeas petitions know what specific conduct constitutes untimeliness. SeeBrief of Federal Defenders at 31. In addition, a group of federal court scholars argues that eliminating the adequacy requirement would disrupt the Court’s long-established jurisprudence on procedural bar rules and would invite “years, perhaps decades, of litigation over the meaning of the new standard.” Brief of Amici Curiae Federal Court Scholars in Support of Respondent at 5.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will affect whether California’s "timeliness" procedural bar for habeas corpus petitions is sufficiently clear and consistently applied so as to be considered “adequate” for use in federal court. Thus, the Court’s decision will determine whether the procedural rule will be allowed to stand as-is or whether it will be replaced by a clearer, more detailed explanation of what conduct constitutes “substantial delay.” A decision in favor of Walker may allow for the continuation of what some third parties contend is arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, but a decision in favor of Martin may undermine California’s choice to apply the rule in a discretionary, case-by-case manner.

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