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Argument preview: Is California’s timeliness rule adequate to bar federal habeas relief?

The Court has long held that federal habeas claims are barred if a state court previously denied relief based on “a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment.” On Monday, in Walker v. Martin (09-996), the Court will consider whether a California procedural bar against untimely habeas petitions constitutes an “adequate” state ground to preclude federal habeas review.


In 1995, respondent Charles Martin was convicted in a California court of first-degree murder, and his conviction became final two years later. After unsuccessfully seeking state habeas relief, Martin filed a federal habeas petition that – among other things – made several new claims based on federal constitutional law. Because Martin had not yet raised these claims in the state courts, in February 2001 the district court stayed the federal proceedings to allow him to exhaust his state remedies with respect to the new claims.

In March 2002, Martin filed a state habeas petition that included his new claims. The state court denied his petition as untimely in September 2002. In so doing, it cited state cases requiring prisoners to file their habeas petitions “as promptly as the circumstances of the case allow” and without “substantial delay” unless they point to particular circumstances to justify a delay – which Martin did not.

In January 2003, Martin returned to federal court. As relevant here, the state asked the district court to dismiss his new claims as procedurally barred, based on the state court’s dismissal of the claims as untimely. The district court agreed with the state and dismissed Martin’s petition, but the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded some of Martin’s new claims for a determination of whether the state’s timeliness rule was “adequate” to support a federal procedural bar under the Court’s adequate state ground doctrine, which considers a state procedural ground as a bar to a federal habeas court’s consideration of federal questions only if the state rule is “firmly established” and “regularly followed.” Although the district court again dismissed Martin’s claims, the Ninth Circuit again reversed. In its view, California’s timeliness rule was “inadequate” because the state had not met its burden of showing that the state rule was clearly defined and consistently applied.


California (on behalf of warden James Walker and other state officials) filed a petition for certiorari in which it argued that, absent extraordinary circumstances, federal courts should presume the adequacy of state procedural rules. Citing the Court’s recent decision in Beard v. Kindler (2009) – in which Justice Kennedy, joined by Justice Thomas, deemed it “most doubtful that this Court can or should require federal courts to disregard a state procedural ground that was not in all respects explicit before the case when it was first announced, absent a showing of a purpose or pattern to evade constitutional guarantees” – the state argued that “[i]t is most appropriate for federal courts to embrace an approach which treats as ‘adequate’ a fair state-court procedural-bar judgment which is premised upon an established and reasonable procedural rule.” The Court granted certiorari on June 21, 2010.


In its brief on the merits, California argues that a state ground is “adequate” to preclude federal habeas review of claims based on federal law as long as the state rule provides fair notice and serves a legitimate state interest. The state disputes any suggestion that federal courts should evaluate whether discretionary state rules – such as its timeliness rule – are consistently applied. Throughout its brief, the state highlights federalism concerns, and it urges the Court to give states broad latitude in crafting and applying their own procedural rules. The state contends that federal courts should presume that state procedural rules are adequate, with habeas petitioners bearing the burden of demonstrating their inadequacy. As it did at the certiorari stage, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the state in which it urges the Court to disavow the adequate state ground doctrine. That doctrine, the CJLF contends, served an important purpose during the civil rights movement, when state courts were purposefully evading federal laws, but is now less necessary absent a showing that a state is purposely avoiding enforcement of binding federal law.

In his brief on the merits, Martin counters that states – rather than habeas petitioners – should bear the burden of demonstrating that a state procedural bar is adequate. Supported by an amicus brief from the Habeas Corpus Research Center, Martin contends that the state has not satisfied this burden for two reasons. First, the phrase “substantial delay” is vague and therefore does not provide habeas petitioners with adequate notice regarding when they must file their habeas petitions. Second, the state does not consistently enforce its timeliness rule.

Martin further urges the Court not to reconsider the adequate state ground doctrine. Because the doctrine also applies to other areas of the law – including civil cases, administrative proceedings, and criminal cases on direct review – revising the adequate state ground doctrine in the context of federal habeas review would require the Court either to revise the doctrine in these other areas as well or, alternatively, to decouple the doctrine from these other contexts. On this argument, respondent benefits from an amicus brief, authored by Michael Dorf on behalf of federal courts scholars, that synthesizes and defends the Court’s adequate state ground doctrine.

Recommended Citation: Jud Campbell, Argument preview: Is California’s timeliness rule adequate to bar federal habeas relief?, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 26, 2010, 10:00 AM),