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Supreme Court Decision Update - Lawrence v. Florida

cella_large.jpgLawrence v. Florida (PDF of the Opinion) is a tedious case about the statute of limitations under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Or rather, it’s about whether the statute of limitations is tolled (put on hold) during the pendency of a petition for a writ of certiorari following the denial of a state court post-conviction. The Court’s majority concluded that the statute is not tolled, regardless of whether the petitioner had a petition for a writ of certiorari pending with the Supreme Court. In other words, the Supreme Court has essentially told Lawrence that he’s S.O.L., and death is imminent.

QuizLaw Analysis The conservative majority basically went with the strictest reading of the statute, holding that 28 USC § 2244(d)(2)’s one-year statute of limitations continues to run even if a writ of cert is pending.

What happened to Lawrence? Lawrence had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He appealed his conviction, alleging 13 counts of ineffective assistance of council, and eventually lost those appeals, meaning the conviction was now final. Which means he had 365 days to file a habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. 364 days later, one day before his time would be up, he filed a different appeal in state court, seeking post-conviction relief. Relief was denied, and he eventually sought cert from the Supremes, but this too was denied.

While his petition for certiorari with the Supremes was pending, he filed his federal habeas application. This was 113 days after the state Supreme Court had denied his post-conviction appeals.

And what’s the issue here? Well the problem works like this. He had 365 days to file his habeas petition. He let 364 days go by. But then he filed state appeals, and that tolled the statute of limitations, meaning that “1 day left” was put on hold.” So the question posed to the Supreme Court was: Did the statute of limitations toll while his writ for certiorari was pending?

And did it? The majority of the court concluded that it did not. This opinoin was penned by Justice Thomas, and joined by Chief Justice Johnny, The Scalia, and Justices Kennedy and Alito. Thomas says that the limitations period had tolled while he was seeking relief from the state of Florida, but — since he had only one day remaining on the year term — he should’ve applied for federal habeas relief the day after his state appeals ran out, not 113 days later (that is, he was 112 days too late).

The pertinent section of 28 USC § 2244(d)(2) notes: “The time during which a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment or claim is pending shall not be counted toward any period of limitation under this subsection.” Thomas and the majority reasoned that a writ for certiorari from the Supreme Court does not count as “application for State post-conviction or other collateral review,” because it is pending before a federal court.

Thomas offers all sorts of reasons behind the Court’s ruling, but it mostly comes down to this: It’s what the statute says explicitly, so that’s what we’re going to go with, awkwardness and fairness be damned.

And what’s the dissent have to say? Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, disagreed. Ginsburg noted (I think logically) that writs for certiorari arise from “actions instituted in lower state courts.” Therefore, the dissent argued, a petition for certiorari is part of the state appeals process and the tolling period should continue until the “Court has had an opportunity to consider an application for state postconviction relief.”