Does the statute of limitations for a federal law allowing prisoners the right to challenge a state’s post-conviction DNA testing regime begin to run as soon as the state trial court denies DNA testing or at the end of the state-court litigation, including all appeals?
This case asks the Supreme Court to resolve a circuit split and decide when the statute of limitations for 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims for post-conviction DNA testing begin to run. Rodney Reed argues that the statute of limitations for his § 1983 claim for DNA testing should begin after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied rehearing because this is the point at which he exhausted his state court options. Bryan Goertz counters that the statute of limitations should begin after the trial court denied Reed’s DNA testing request because this is when Reed first became aware that his right to DNA testing was allegedly being violated. The outcome of this case has significant implications for federalism, inmate rights, and the accuracy of the justice system.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the statute of limitations for a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence begins to run at the end of state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals (as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has held), or whether it begins to run at the moment the state trial court denies DNA testing, despite any subsequent appeal (as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, joining the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, held below).
In 1996, 19-year-old Stacey Stites’ body was found on the side of a country road in Bastrop County, Texas. Reed v. Goertz, at 2. The medical examiner determined that Stites was strangled to death with her belt. Id. Investigators found Stites’ shirt and a torn piece of her belt near her body. Id. Stites’ truck was later found in a parking lot, with the other half of Stites’ belt, buckle intact, lying outside. Id. Using medical evidence, including sperm found in Stites’ vagina, the medical examiner concluded that Stites had likely been sexually assaulted before her death. Id.
After a year of investigating, the police matched the DNA from the sperm to Rodney Reed. Id. Reed claimed he was innocent and had been engaging in a longstanding secret affair with Stites. Id. Reed was charged with capital murder. Id. The jury ultimately convicted Reed and sentenced him to death. Id. at 3.
Reed appealed his conviction, filing multiple habeas corpus petitions in state court. Id. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”) rejected Reed’s petitions, he filed a habeas petition in United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. Id. The district court stayed Reed’s federal proceedings to allow him to return to state court and exhaust multiple arguments regarding DNA evidence uncovered after he filed in federal court. Reed v. Stephens, at 763. Reed filed several more habeas petitions in state court and eventually returned to federal court years later to file an amended habeas petition asserting claims of actual innocence. Reed, at 3. The district court ultimately granted summary judgment in the State of Texas’ favor on all of Reed’s claims, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (“Fifth Circuit”) affirmed on appeal. Id.
After denying Reed’s federal habeas corpus petition, Texas moved to set an execution date for Reed. Id. Reed then moved under Article 64 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure (“Article 64”) for post-conviction DNA testing of items found on or near Stites’ body and in the truck. Id. Article 64 allows a convicted defendant to obtain post-conviction DNA testing of biological material if the court finds that certain conditions are met. Id. The state trial court denied Reed’s Article 64 motion, and the CCA affirmed. Id. The United States Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) denied certiorari, and Reed’s execution was scheduled for November 20, 2019. Brief for Respondent, at 4.
In August 2019, Reed filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Bryan Goertz, the Bastrop County District Attorney, in district court. Reed, at 4. Reed challenged the constitutionality of Article 64, both on its face and as applied to him, and requested declaratory relief, stating that Article 64 violates the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Id. Goertz moved to dismiss under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that the court had no subject-matter jurisdiction over the case and that Reed failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Id. The district court granted Goertz’s motion, dismissing all of Reed’s claims with prejudice. Id. Reed appealed, and without addressing the merits of the case, the Fifth Circuit dismissed Reed’s suit as untimely, reasoning that the two-year statute of limitations for his § 1983 claim began running at the end of state trial court litigation, in September 2016. Id. at 9.
Reed appealed the Fifth Circuit’s decision, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari on April 25, 2022.
JURISDICTION OVER § 1983 CLAIMS
Reed argues that the federal court has jurisdiction over his § 1983 claim because Supreme Court precedent has established that while only the Supreme Court may review state-court decisions, a lower federal court may review challenges to statutes or rules governing state-court decisions alleging violations of federal law. Brief for Petitioner, Rodney Reed at 22. Reed maintains that his § 1983 claim challenges Article 64 as it is authoritatively construed, not the decision of the CCA itself. Id. Reed further argues that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar the federal court from hearing his § 1983 claim against Goertz because federal courts may hear claims against state officials if they allege ongoing violations of federal law and seek prospective relief as a result. Id. at 23. Reed maintains that Article 64 violates his due process rights and that Goertz failed to exercise his ability as district attorney to prevent this ongoing violation of federal law. Id. Reed further maintains that the relief he seeks is prospective because he is seeking declaratory relief that will prohibit Goertz from using the CCA’s authoritative construction of Article 64 to unconstitutionally deny DNA testing. Id.
Goertz counters that the federal court does not have jurisdiction over Reed’s § 1983 claim because the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars citizens from seeking federal court review of injuries caused by final state-court judgments, which is what Reed is attempting to do. Brief for Respondent, Bryan Goertz at 41-42. Goertz posits that Reed challenges the CCA’s decision as applied to him, and therefore his case is distinct from Skinner v. Switzer, which allowed a citizen to challenge Article 64 itself. Id. at 42. Goertz further argues that because Reed challenges both the conduct of the prosecutor assigned to his case and the CCA’s decision, Court precedent bars his claim. Id. at 39-40. Goertz contends that the Eleventh Amendment precludes Reed’s § 1983 claim against him because the Amendment prohibits suits directed towards public officials when the state is the real party in interest. Id. Goertz maintains that Texas is the real party in interest, and as an elected Texas district attorney, Goertz is entitled to immunity. Id. at 22-24. Furthermore, Goertz emphasizes that Reed cannot meet any exception to counteract Eleventh Amendment immunity. Id.
MEETING THE ARTICLE III STANDING THRESHOLD UNDER § 1983
Reed argues that he has standing to bring his § 1983 claim against Goertz because he meets all three required factors. Brief for Petitioner at 23. According to Reed, the three factors of standing are: (1) an injury in fact, (2) a causal connection between the injury and the conduct challenged before the court, and (3) a likely possibility that a favorable decision from the court will redress the injury. Id. Regarding the first factor, Reed posits that he suffered an injury in fact because Article 64 fails to protect Reed’s liberty to prove his innocence through DNA testing. Id. Regarding the second factor, Reed maintains that his injury is “fairly traceable” to Goertz because, as a district attorney, Goertz reserves the ability to access the DNA evidence, but he failed to allow the DNA testing Reed requested. Id. at 23-24. As for the third and final factor, Reed argues that a declaratory judgment can redress his injury because such judgment would prohibit Goertz from using the unconstitutional procedures outlined in Article 64 to deny Reed’s DNA testing request. Id. at 24.
Goertz counters that Reed lacks standing to sue him because he does not meet the required three factors, specifically the second and third factors. Brief for Respondent, at 37. Regarding the second factor, Goertz maintains that Reed’s alleged injury is not fairly traceable to Goertz, because Goertz did not himself deprive Reed of the ability to complete DNA testing; rather, the CCA ruled on its own that Reed failed to meet Article 64’s requirements. Id. at 38. As for the third factor, Goertz argues that declaratory judgment would not redress Reed’s alleged injury, because such judgment does not ask for any action from Goertz and would not require Goertz to alter his conduct. Id. Rather, Goertz maintains, a declaratory judgment would instead merely lead the Court to declare Article 64 unconstitutional. Id. at 38-39. Therefore, Goertz emphasizes that no relief can be granted from the person Reed traces his injury to. Id. at 39.
DETERMINING THE § 1983 STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
Reed argues that the statute of limitations for his § 1983 claim began to run after state-court litigation ended, which was when the CCA rendered its final authoritative construction of Article 64. Brief for Petitioner at 24. Reed asserts that his challenge is to the authoritative construction of Article 64 as violative of his due process rights. Id. Thus, Reed posits that general common sense supports his argument, because it would be impossible for Reed to challenge the authoritative construction of Article 64 in federal court without knowing the CCA’s final authoritative construction of the law. Id. at 26. Reed maintains that common law underscores the common-sense argument he makes regarding the statute of limitations. Id. Reed also argues that Court precedent, as well as the very nature of his § 1983 claim, support his argument. Id. at 28. Reed posits that decisions such as District Attorney’s Office for Third Judicial District v. Osborne and Skinner, urge citizens to challenge state laws in state court before bringing federal claims challenging such laws. Id. at 29. Reed further posits that the nature of his claim, a challenge to the authoritative construction of Article 64, mandated that he wait until he had a final construction of the law before pursuing federal litigation. Id. Therefore, Reed maintains that the statute of limitations must begin after all state-court litigation ends. Id.
Reed also notes that his stance promotes due process purposes and values, because allowing the statute of limitations to begin running at the end of state-court litigation facilitates clarity regarding state procedures, which is crucial to evaluating potential deprivation of due process. Id. at 30. Reed further argues that analogous cases regarding the authoritative construction of state law depriving citizens of due process rights made their way to the Court in the past and therefore support the viability of Reed’s argument. Id. at 32.
Goertz counters that the statute of limitations began when the trial court denied DNA testing, or at the latest, when the CCA issued its decision affirming that the trial court’s denial was correct. Brief for Respondent at 14. Goertz maintains that the date the CCA’s authoritative construction of Article 64 became final is irrelevant. Id. at 18. Goertz asserts that the relevant occurrence is the moment Reed became aware of the denial of DNA testing that he views as unconstitutional. Id. Goertz emphasizes that this moment is when Reed knew he suffered an alleged injury, and therefore the statute of limitations began to run when the trial court denied DNA testing. Id. Goertz further argues that the statute of limitations should have begun, at the latest, when the CCA issued its decision because an appellate court’s opinion is immediately authoritative once it is issued. Id. at 22. Goertz posits that both Texas criminal procedure and Texas state court precedent support the assertion that an appellate court’s opinion is instantly authoritative and binding. Id. at 26-27.
Goertz also notes that Reed initially brought a challenge to Article 64 on its face, in addition to his challenge to the CCA’s authoritative construction, but he now only asks the Court to address his authoritative construction challenge. Id. at 33. Goertz nonetheless maintains the statute of limitations for Reed’s general challenge to Article 64 began to run the moment the state trial court denied DNA testing. Id.
PRINCIPLES OF FEDERALISM AND COMITY
Federal Courts Scholars (the “Scholars”), in support of Reed, argue that Reed’s claim for post-conviction DNA testing should not accrue until the end of all state litigation based on federalism principles, the preservation of power between the federal and state courts, and judicial comity. Brief of Amici Curiae Federal Courts Scholars (“Scholars”), in Support of Petitioner at 4. The Scholars contend that federalism and comity, principles that preserve the balance between state and federal judicial power, discourage federal courts’ unnecessary intrusion on state processes. Id. The Scholars stress that co-pendency of state and federal proceedings would result if Reed’s claim accrued after the state court denies DNA testing. Id. The Scholars argue that Reed’s claim should accrue after the state court’s denial of rehearing, thereby properly sequencing federal litigation after the end of all state processes. Id. at 7.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. (collectively “NACDL”), in support of Reed, argues that finding Reed’s claim to have accrued after the state court’s denial of DNA testing will disrupt federalism and comity by encouraging parallel litigation. Brief of Amici Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. (“NACDL”), in Support of Petitioner at 5. NACDL emphasizes that such accrual rules may force petitioners to file federal lawsuits even before state proceedings end. Id. NACDL posits that the possibility of a federal court reversing a state court decision or partially changing the construction of the state law renders the federal constitutional analysis a contingency depending upon the state court’s final decision. Id. at 7. Accordingly, NACDL stresses that federalism and comity considerations support a finding that Reed’s claim accrued after the denial of rehearing. Id.
Montana and nine other states (collectively “Montana”), in support of Goertz, counter that finding Reed’s claim to have accrued after the denial of rehearing undermines principles of federalism and comity. Brief of Amici Curiae Montana et al. (“Montana”), in Support of Respondent at 6. Montana argues that a federal judicial power instructing a state judicial power on how to conform state rules would represent a significant intrusion on state sovereignty. Id. Montana claims that the only exception to this principle is when a federal court vindicates the supremacy of federal law. Id. at 9. However, Montana asserts that finding Reed’s claim to have accrued after the denial of rehearing is beyond the possible exception. Id. at 9.
Goertz argues that the Court should respect state judicial construction and the Fifth Circuit’s authority by finding that Reed’s claim challenging Texas’ post-conviction DNA testing regime accrued after the denial of DNA testing. Brief for Respondent, Bryan Goertz at 12. Goertz contends that federalism and comity direct the court to recognize state-law constructions of the accrual rule, just as federal courts immediately recognize the Court’s federal-law decisions. Id. Goertz stresses that allowing Reed’s claim to accrue at the conclusion of all state litigation will not mitigate the problem of parallel litigation because Reed’s proposal encourages petitioners to seek rehearing in state court after getting an adverse opinion on the merits of the claim. Id. at 31. Therefore, Goertz emphasizes, the Court must reject Reed’s proposed accrual rule and guard state sovereignty, federalism, and comity. Id.
BOLSTERING THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM
Eight Retired Judges (the “Judges”), in support of Reed, argue that allowing post-conviction DNA testing legitimizes the criminal justice system by bolstering the accuracy of criminal convictions. Brief of Amici Curiae Eight Retired Judges (the “Judges”), in Support of Petitioner at 5. The Judges reason that DNA testing has historically served as a means of exonerating wrongly convicted people and disclosing flaws in the justice system, including deliberate police and prosecutorial misconduct and false confessions. Id. Hence, the Judges argue that bolstering the accuracy of Reed’s criminal conviction through post-conviction DNA testing, a technology unavailable at the time of his conviction, serves a purpose by ensuring certainty in the justice system. Id. at 3.
On the other hand, Goertz counters that compliance with the state’s accrual rule promotes the judicial system’s interests in regulating the work and distinguishing overdue claims. Brief for Respondent at 25. Goertz maintains that Reed’s claim is overdue according to the state’s accrual rule and granting Reed post-conviction DNA testing beyond the limitations period is allowing petitioners like Reed to effectively control when the limitations period will begin. Id. Therefore, Goertz argues that the Court should find that Reed’s claim accrued after the denial of DNA testing and promote the states’ interest in regulating their court systems. Id
- Jesus Jiménez, Supreme Court to Hear DNA Appeal in Rodney Reed Murder Case, New York Times (Apr. 25, 2022).
- Jordan Rubin, Justices Take on DNA-Testing Appeal Timing in Innocence Case, Bloomberg Law (Apr. 25, 2022).
- Dan Schweitzer, Supreme Court Report: Reed v. Goertz, 21-442, National Association of Attorneys General (May 19, 2022).