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Argument preview: Do post-conviction pleas for leniency stop the clock on the statute of limitations for federal habeas petitions?


The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) established a one-year statute of limitations for the filing of federal habeas corpus applications.  AEDPA also contains a tolling provision, 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(2), which provides that the time during which “a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment” is pending does not count toward the one-year limitations period.  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 AEDPA’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.  The state supreme court affirmed the conviction on February 29, 1996.  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) (“Rule 35(a)”), which gives state courts discretionary authority to “reduce any sentence.”  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.  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.  The state (on behalf of the warden, currently A.T. Wall) moved to dismiss Kholi’s petition as untimely.  The district court agreed.  It determined that Kholi’s application for state post-conviction relief tolled the AEDPA limitations period from May 23, 1997 through December 14, 2006.  However, the court further determined that because his Rule 35(a) motion did not challenge the validity of Kholi’s conviction or sentence but instead amounted to a plea for discretionary leniency, it did not trigger AEDPA’s tolling provision. Thus, Kholi’s state-court conviction became final on May 28, 1996, when his time for requesting a writ of certiorari elapsed, and AEDPA’s one-year limitations period expired on December 19, 2006 – months before he first sought habeas relief.

On appeal, the First Circuit reversed.  While acknowledging that Kholi’s Rule 35(a) motion was “a plea for leniency, simpliciter,” the panel nonetheless held that it was “obviously a motion that seeks state post-conviction review” for purposes of AEDPA’s tolling provision. Nothing in the language of § 2244(d)(2), the court noted, limits tolling to motions challenging the legality of a judgment or sentence.  Rather, the term “review” is to be read expansively as “a looking over or examination with a view to amendment or improvement.”  The First Circuit declined to follow the Fourth Circuit’s conclusion that § 2244(d)(2) contemplates only “collateral, post-conviction review,” deeming that approach a misleading and inaccurate conflation of the statutory language.  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 AEDPA’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 court’s decision on two fronts, presenting both textual and policy arguments for reversal.  First, the state contends that § 2244(d)(2)’s use of the phrase “application[s] for State post-conviction or other collateral review” means that tolling is available only for applications that “seek to invalidate or ‘attack’ an otherwise final judgment of conviction or sentence”; it is not available for applications pursuing the kind of discretionary relief authorized by Rule 35(a).  Contrary to the First Circuit’s interpretation, the state contends that the statute’s language and construction suggest that the tolling provision is indeed limited to applications for “collateral review,” of which “post-conviction” review is merely one type.  And although it is not defined in AEDPA, the Court has repeatedly used the term “collateral review” with respect to a state court proceeding to refer to a collateral proceeding that challenges the lawfulness of a prior judgment.  Thus, Congress should be presumed to have recognized and intended this understanding of “collateral review” when it drafted AEDPA.

The state also notes that “collateral review” in a federal context (e.g., a challenge by a federal prisoner seeking § 2255 relief) has been used to mean “an attack upon an otherwise final judgment – 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.”  Moreover, Congress used “collateral review” in other parts of § 2244 in ways that suggest an intent to define the term specifically as a vehicle for challenging a judgment or sentence.  The reason Congress chose to use expansive terminology, the state posits, was not to apply the tolling provision to all “reviews” following a conviction, but instead to “comprehend the variously denominated collateral review vehicles employed by the fifty states, vehicles which conventionally provide for collateral challenge to a final judgment of conviction.”

Second, the state asserts that its reading of the tolling provision aligns with the interests that AEDPA is designed to promote.  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.  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.  Thus, the state contends, its interpretation of “State post-conviction or other collateral review” to refer to only applications seeking to invalidate a judgment “strikes the appropriate balance Congress sought to achieve between finality and exhaustion.”  Because a discretionary sentence-reduction application such as Kholi’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.  Excluding pleas for leniency from the scope of AEDPA’s tolling provision would affirmatively promote Congress’s interest in the finality of state-court judgments, while not running counter to the exhaustion doctrine.

In response, Kholi’s merits brief presents countervailing textual and policy arguments regarding AEDPA’s tolling provision.  First, he contends that the plain language of § 2244(d)(2) supports the conclusion that a motion for a discretionary sentence reduction is in fact an “application for State post-conviction or other collateral review.”  Like the state, Kholi reads “post conviction” review as a type of “collateral review”; yet while the state construes “collateral review” narrowly, to include only applications that challenge the legality of a final judgment of conviction or sentence, Kholi maintains that “all post-conviction review with respect to the judgment at issue falls within the scope of ‘collateral review,’” regardless of “whether the relief from judgment sought is legal or equitable.”   In Kholi’s view, “collateral” should be taken at its ordinary, dictionary meaning of “not direct” and “accompanying, attendant, concomitant.”  “Collateral review” of a judgment, then, would be review other than review of a judgment in the direct appeal process – that is, simply “review under-taken after a judgment has become final.”

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.  Congress’s designation of “State post-conviction or other collateral review” 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.  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 “post-conviction or other collateral review” under § 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.  Kholi also notes that Congress intended to provide bright-line rules for the federal habeas process; the state’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.  Such analysis would impose a severe burden on district courts and result in increased unpredictability and lack of uniformity.

Cases: Wall v. Kholi

Recommended Citation: Anne Lee, Argument preview: Do post-conviction pleas for leniency stop the clock on the statute of limitations for federal habeas petitions?, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 26, 2010, 3:00 PM),