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Court gives hope to death-row inmates

Maka Hutson is a summer associate at Akin Gump.

Yesterday, in Holland v. Florida (No. 09-5327), the Court held that Section 2244(d) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which requires state prisoners to file their federal habeas petitions within one year after their direct appeals become final, is subject to equitable tolling. [In February, Kate Wevers of Harvard Law School previewed and recapped the oral argument here and here.]

The petitioner in this case, Albert Holland, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a Florida state court. His direct appeals were unsuccessful, and the one-year limitations period under Section 2244(d) began to run on October 1, 2001. Bradley Collins, the attorney appointed to represent Holland at the post-conviction stage, filed a motion for state post-conviction relief in September 2002, thereby tolling the limitations period and leaving Holland with approximately twelve days to file his federal habeas petition if his motion for state post-conviction relief was denied. The limitations period began to run again on December 1, 2005, when the Florida Supreme Court denied relief. Despite Holland’s frequent reminders, Collins failed not only to file a timely federal habeas petition, but also even to tell Holland that his efforts to obtain state post-conviction relief were unsuccessful.  In January 2006, after the AEDPA limitations period had expired, Holland finally learned that the Florida court had denied relief; one day later, he filed a pro se federal habeas petition.

The district court held that Holland was not entitled to equitable tolling because he had not been diligent in pursuing his rights; thus, his petition was untimely. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, albeit on a different ground.  It did not address whether Holland had been sufficiently diligent; instead, it reasoned, “no allegation of lawyer negligence . . . can rise to the level of egregious attorney misconduct that would entitle [a prisoner] to equitable tolling” unless there are allegations of affirmative misrepresentations, bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, or mental impairment on the part of the attorney.

The Court granted certiorari and reversed.  In an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Court  emphasized that the history of the writ of habeas corpus, “the Great Writ, the only writ explicitly protected by the Constitution,” militates against interpreting AEDPA’s nonjurisdictional statute of limitations as reflecting Congress’s intent to “close courthouse doors that a strong equitable claim would ordinarily keep open.”  Indeed, the Court noted, a nonjurisdictional federal statute of limitations is normally subject to a “rebuttable presumption” in favor of equitable tolling. And equitable principles, the Court stressed, have traditionally governed the substantive law of habeas corpus.

Turning to the case before it, the Court stopped short of holding that Collins’s negligence amounted to the kind of “extraordinary circumstances” that would allow equitable tolling in Holland’s case. The Court indicated both that the record contained facts that were far more serious than “garden variety” attorney negligence, and that those facts “may well be” an extraordinary instance that would justify equitable tolling, but the Court deemed it more appropriate for the lower courts to make those factual determinations. Because the District Court erroneously relied on a lack of diligence by Holland, and because the Eleventh Circuit erroneously relied on an overly rigid per se approach, the Court reversed and remanded the case to the court of appeals for it to determine whether the facts of Holland’s case constituted extraordinary circumstances sufficient to warrant equitable relief.

Justice Alito concurred in part and concurred in the judgment.  He agreed with the Court that equitable tolling is available under AEDPA and that the Eleventh Circuit had applied the wrong standard in denying Holland relief.  However, in his view, the Court’s “conclusory formulation” that “equitable tolling requires ‘extraordinary circumstances’” does not provide enough guidance to the lower courts.

Justice Scalia filed a dissent, which Justice Thomas joined in part.  In his view, AEDPA does not allow for equitable tolling because Congress codified specific instances in which the statute of limitations applies, and courts should not expand this finite list. And even if AEDPA provided for equitable tolling, Collins’s acts and oversights are fully attributable to Holland, who had no constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel at the post-conviction stage. Justice Scalia took issue with the Court’s “smuggling” the Strickland standard into a case in which, in his view, it does not apply.