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Today’s Argument in Pace v. DiGuglielmo

Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Pace v. DiGuglielmo. The Court is being asked whether an untimely state post-conviction habeas petition may be “properly filed” under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which requires habeas corpus petitions to be filed within one year of the final conviction appeal at the state level. The clock on this one-year requirement is paused when a “properly filed” state post-conviction petition is pending in the state courts.

Petitioner John Pace is challenging his 1985 conviction for second-degree murder. Pace claims that his counsel led him to believe that if he pleaded guilty he would be sentenced to a 10- to 15-year prison term. Instead he received a life sentence without parole.

Though Pace did not file a direct appeal, he did file a pro se petition under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Hearing Act, claiming both ineffective assistance from trial counsel and trial court error. The petition for state post-conviction relief was denied in 1992. After this first request, the Pennsylvania legislature replaced the state’s Post Conviction Hearing Act with the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), and subsequently amended the PCRA to include, inter alia, time limits in an effort to prevent the filing of repetitive petitions. Like AEDPA, the PCRA – which took effect on January 16, 1996 – like its federal counterpoint, requires that habeas petitions be filed within one year of the date on which a prisoner’s conviction becomes final. For prisoners, like Pace, whose convictions became final before the legislation became effective, the first petition had to be filed within a year of the PCRA’s effective date.

On November 27, 1996, Pace filed a second request for collateral relief – this time under the amended PCRA – repeating his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The Court of Common Pleas denied Pace’s request based on the merits of the case, without making any determination about whether his petition was timely or not. Pace appealed his case to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which dismissed the request as untimely in December 1998, citing two state cases where the trial-level court mistakenly acted on an untimely post-conviction relief petition.

Next, having exhausted state-post conviction relief, Pace filed a habeas corpus petition in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in December 1999 – more than two-and-a-half years after the end of AEDPA’s one-year “grace period” for prisoners whose convictions became final before the AEDPA’s effective date. Pace argues that he could not have filed the petition within the first year of enactment because the court would have refused to hear it because he had not exhausted his remedies in state court.

The question then, is whether his untimely state post-conviction petition, which had been pending in Pennsylvania when the federal clock ran out, would be considered “properly filed” for purposes of the AEDPA’s one-year statute of limitations.

The U.S. District Court ruled that the habeas petition was timely because Pace’s state post-conviction relief had effectively paused the one-year deadline. The court pointed to the Fifth and Ninth Circuits, which have relied on the Supreme Court’s holding in Artuz v. Bennett to conclude that untimely state post-convictions petitions may still stop the federal habeas clock.In Artuz, the Supreme Court held that a petition for state post-conviction relief that contained procedurally defaulted claims was “properly filed” for AEDPA purposes as long as the petitioner had met all applicable procedural requirements – such as “the form of the document, the time limits on its delivery, the court and office in which it must be lodged, and the requisite filing fee.” The Court drew the line between the conditions to filing an entire petition and a condition to obtaining relief for individual claims asserted within the petition, holding that only the former need be met to be considered “properly filed.”

The Third Circuit unanimously reversed, holding that its most recent decision in Merritt v. Blaine precluded the untimely state post-conviction relief petition from being considered “properly filed.” The forthcoming decision in Pace should resolve a circuit split between, on the one hand, the Third and Seventh Circuits – which have found that a state-post conviction petition deemed “untimely” by the state courts is never “properly filed” for federal purposes – and, on the other hand, the Ninth Circuit, which stops the clock on federal habeas petitions even if the state petition was inappropriately filed.

Philadelphia Public Defender Billy H. Nolas will be arguing the case for petitioner Pace. Ronald Eisenberg, the Deputy District Attorney, will be arguing for the respondent. Merits briefs can be found here.