The U.S. Supreme Court today decided
another case under the habeas reforms of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The case involves one of those odd little quirks where statutory language is perfectly clear in the normal course of things but ends up being unclear in a situation that never occurred to the people who wrote or voted on the statute.
The statute of limitations for a state prisoner to file a federal habeas petition, 28 U.S.C. § 2244
(d), generally starts running when the case becomes "final by the conclusion of direct review...." Finality on direct review was a concept well established in the high court's retroactivity jurisprudence long before AEDPA, see Griffith
, 479 U.S. 314
, n. 6 (1987), and generally does not present a problem. State collateral proceedings pause the federal limitations clock but do not reset it to zero.
But what happens when the direct review process malfunctions, and the state courts are presented with a collateral attack (such as a habeas corpus petition) presenting the issues that should have been presented on appeal? The state court could (1) tell the prisoner he is out of luck; (2) waive the usual default rule (that issues that should have been presented on appeal but were not are defaulted) and consider the issues in the state collateral proceeding; or (3) reinstate the right to appeal, notwithstanding the lapse of the usual time to appeal.
This was the situation in Jimenez v. Quarterman
. Jimenez's direct appeal lawyer found no issues to brief and gave the required notice that Jimenez could file a pro se
brief by leaving a letter at the county jail. But Jimenez wasn't there, having already been sent to the big house. When all this came to light, the state habeas court chose number 3, above, and reset the clock on the direct appeal for the purpose of state law.
What effect does this have on the federal statute? The state court's choice between options 2 and 3, above, is one of form rather than substance. If the state court just finds the default excused and goes ahead and considers the issues on habeas, then the reconsideration is clearly a state collateral review which merely pauses rather than resets the clock. Although the federal statute has exceptions that would give an inmate extra time when he really has been shafted, any time that he spent sitting on known claims would still count. In this case, as Justice Ginsburg noted in the oral argument
, Jimenez sat on his claims for four and half years after he found out that his direct appeal had been dismissed.
In the end, the Supreme Court just went with the answer that seems simplest from the face of the statute. If the state chooses to reinstate the direct appeal, the case has been retrieved from the "final" bin much as you would retrieve a "deleted" file on your computer. It's an odd result in the case, but the oddity traces back to an incorrect decision by the state court. The right answer would have been that even though Jimenez would have had his claims considered if he brought them promptly after learning of the dismissal of his appeal, he lost that right through his years-long inaction after that discovery.
On remand, I would place a large wager that the final decision will be that Jimenez's claims are without merit anyway.