Argument preview: Do post-conviction pleas for leniency stop the clock on the statute of limitations for federal habeas petitions?
on Nov 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm
The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (â€œAEDPAâ€) established a one-year statute of limitations for the filing of federal habeas corpus applications.Â AEDPA also contains a tolling provision, 28 U.S.C. Â§ 2244(d)(2), which provides that the time during which â€œa properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgmentâ€ is pending does not count toward the one-year limitations period.Â On Monday, in Wall v. Kholi, the Court will consider whether an application for a discretionary sentence reduction (essentially a plea for leniency) stops the clock on AEDPAâ€™s statute of limitations.
In December 1993, respondent Khalil Kholi was convicted by a Rhode Island jury of ten counts of first-degree sexual assault against his two step-daughters.Â The state supreme court affirmed the conviction on February 29, 1996.Â On May 16, 1996, Kholi filed a motion in the trial court to reduce his sentence pursuant to Rhode Island Superior Court Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(a) (â€œRule 35(a)â€), which gives state courts discretionary authority to â€œreduce any sentence.â€Â The motion was denied on August 27, 1996, and that ruling was affirmed by the state supreme court on January 16, 1998.
On May 23, 1997, while the appeal from the denial of his Rule 35(a) motion was still pending, Kholi filed an application for post-conviction relief in the trial court.Â The application was denied six years later on April 23, 2003, a decision which the state supreme court affirmed on December 14, 2006.
On September 5, 2007, Kholi sought federal habeas relief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island.Â The state (on behalf of the warden, currently A.T. Wall) moved to dismiss Kholiâ€™s petition as untimely.Â The district court agreed.Â It determined that Kholiâ€™s application for state post-conviction relief tolled the AEDPA limitations period from May 23, 1997 through December 14, 2006.Â However, the court further determined that because his Rule 35(a) motion did not challenge the validity of Kholiâ€™s conviction or sentence but instead amounted to a plea for discretionary leniency, it did not trigger AEDPAâ€™s tolling provision. Thus, Kholiâ€™s state-court conviction became final on May 28, 1996, when his time for requesting a writ of certiorari elapsed, and AEDPAâ€™s one-year limitations period expired on December 19, 2006 â€“ months before he first sought habeas relief.
On appeal, the First Circuit reversed.Â While acknowledging that Kholiâ€™s Rule 35(a) motion was â€œa plea for leniency, simpliciter,â€ the panel nonetheless held that it was â€œobviously a motion that seeks state post-conviction reviewâ€ for purposes of AEDPAâ€™s tolling provision. Nothing in the language of Â§ 2244(d)(2), the court noted, limits tolling to motions challenging the legality of a judgment or sentence.Â Rather, the term â€œreviewâ€ is to be read expansively as â€œa looking over or examination with a view to amendment or improvement.â€Â The First Circuit declined to follow the Fourth Circuitâ€™s conclusion that Â§ 2244(d)(2) contemplates only â€œcollateral, post-conviction review,â€ deeming that approach a misleading and inaccurate conflation of the statutory language.Â The First Circuit likewise rejected as unpersuasive the conclusions of the Eleventh and Third Circuits that giving tolling effect to pleas for leniency does not advance AEDPAâ€™s dual purposes of encouraging exhaustion of state remedies and protecting the finality of state-court judgments.
The state petitioned for certiorari, which the Court granted on May 17, 2010.
In its merits brief, the state attacks the lower courtâ€™s decision on two fronts, presenting both textual and policy arguments for reversal.Â First, the state contends that Â§ 2244(d)(2)â€™s use of the phrase â€œapplication[s] for State post-conviction or other collateral reviewâ€ means that tolling is available only for applications that â€œseek to invalidate or â€˜attackâ€™ an otherwise final judgment of conviction or sentenceâ€; it is not available for applications pursuing the kind of discretionary relief authorized by Rule 35(a).Â Contrary to the First Circuitâ€™s interpretation, the state contends that the statuteâ€™s language and construction suggest that the tolling provision is indeed limited to applications for â€œcollateral review,â€ of which â€œpost-convictionâ€ review is merely one type.Â And although it is not defined in AEDPA, the Court has repeatedly used the term â€œcollateral reviewâ€ with respect to a state court proceeding to refer to a collateral proceeding that challenges the lawfulness of a prior judgment.Â Thus, Congress should be presumed to have recognized and intended this understanding of â€œcollateral reviewâ€ when it drafted AEDPA.
The state also notes that â€œcollateral reviewâ€ in a federal context (e.g., a challenge by a federal prisoner seeking Â§ 2255 relief) has been used to mean â€œan attack upon an otherwise final judgment â€“ indeed, not just any attack, but one premised on lack of jurisdiction, constitutional error, or an error that constitutes a fundamental defect inherently resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice.â€Â Moreover, Congress used â€œcollateral reviewâ€ in other parts of Â§ 2244 in ways that suggest an intent to define the term specifically as a vehicle for challenging a judgment or sentence.Â The reason Congress chose to use expansive terminology, the state posits, was not to apply the tolling provision to all â€œreviewsâ€ following a conviction, but instead to â€œcomprehend the variously denominated collateral review vehicles employed by the fifty states, vehicles which conventionally provide for collateral challenge to a final judgment of conviction.â€
Second, the state asserts that its reading of the tolling provision aligns with the interests that AEDPA is designed to promote.Â The one-year deadline was intended to reduce the potential for delay and promote the finality of state-court judgments by limiting the opportunities a prisoner might have to fully exhaust state-court remedies before seeking federal habeas relief.Â Recognizing, however, the need to ensure that prisoners retain some ability to collaterally challenge their judgments in state court without fear of being time-barred on subsequent habeas petitions, Congress enacted the tolling provision as an exception to the statute of limitations.Â Thus, the state contends, its interpretation of â€œState post-conviction or other collateral reviewâ€ to refer to only applications seeking to invalidate a judgment â€œstrikes the appropriate balance Congress sought to achieve between finality and exhaustion.â€Â Because a discretionary sentence-reduction application such as Kholiâ€™s Rule 35(a) motion does not present such a legal challenge, no federal habeas purpose would be served by tolling for the time that motion is litigated.Â Excluding pleas for leniency from the scope of AEDPAâ€™s tolling provision would affirmatively promote Congressâ€™s interest in the finality of state-court judgments, while not running counter to the exhaustion doctrine.
In response, Kholiâ€™s merits brief presents countervailing textual and policy arguments regarding AEDPAâ€™s tolling provision.Â First, he contends that the plain language of Â§ 2244(d)(2) supports the conclusion that a motion for a discretionary sentence reduction is in fact an â€œapplication for State post-conviction or other collateral review.â€Â Like the state, Kholi reads â€œpost convictionâ€ review as a type of â€œcollateral reviewâ€; yet while the state construes â€œcollateral reviewâ€ narrowly, to include only applications that challenge the legality of a final judgment of conviction or sentence, Kholi maintains that â€œall post-conviction review with respect to the judgment at issue falls within the scope of â€˜collateral review,â€™â€ regardless of â€œwhether the relief from judgment sought is legal or equitable.â€Â Â In Kholiâ€™s view, â€œcollateralâ€ should be taken at its ordinary, dictionary meaning of â€œnot directâ€ and â€œaccompanying, attendant, concomitant.â€Â â€œCollateral reviewâ€ of a judgment, then, would be review other than review of a judgment in the direct appeal process â€“ that is, simply â€œreview under-taken after a judgment has become final.â€
Second, Kholi argues that construing the tolling provision to include discretionary review of a sentence following final judgment is consistent with the principles of federalism and comity that AEDPA was intended to reflect.Â Congressâ€™s designation of â€œState post-conviction or other collateral reviewâ€ as a trigger to the tolling mechanism ensures that states receive proper deference and litigants utilize state-court remedies prior to seeking federal collateral review.Â Principles of comity, Kholi insists, extend beyond the exhaustion requirement; thus, federal courts will generally decline to address habeas claims resolved on independent and adequate state grounds, which may include a discretionary state rule. When a state has chosen to enact processes allowing defendants the opportunity to pursue post-conviction relief, whether legal or discretionary and equitable, that state has established a form of â€œpost-conviction or other collateral reviewâ€ under Â§ 2244(d)(2) and the tolling mechanism should apply.
In addition, Kholi cites considerations of predictability and clarity as reasons for including pleas for leniency as tolling triggers. Affording states the opportunity to rectify errors and determine whether discretionary relief is appropriate may eliminate the need for federal habeas review altogether, conserving time and judicial resources.Â Kholi also notes that Congress intended to provide bright-line rules for the federal habeas process; the stateâ€™s reading of the statute would produce the opposite effect, requiring courts to parse the language of each motion where a state rule, like Rule 35(a), authorizes both legal challenges and equitable relief within the same section or provision.Â Such analysis would impose a severe burden on district courts and result in increased unpredictability and lack of uniformity.