Wednesday, the Court handed down its decision in Walker v. Martin (No. 09-996), holding that California's timeliness rule, which requires habeas petitioners to seek relief without "substantial delay," is an independent and adequate state ground for denying federal habeas review.

In most states, habeas petitioners must file their claims in state court within a particular time period.  Generally, when a state court rejects an untimely federal claim, the habeas petitioner cannot then raise those claims in federal court, because state timeliness rules are usually an independent and adequate state ground for denying the claim.  To qualify as an "adequate" ground, the state rule must be "firmly established and regularly followed." 

Unlike other states, California does not define its timeliness rule in precise, numerical terms.  Instead, habeas petitioners must file their petitions without "substantial delay."  In Walker, the question presented was whether California's timeliness rule is an "adequate" ground.

In a unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that California's rule is indeed an adequate state ground.  Rejecting respondent's argument that California's rule is too indeterminate to be "firmly established," the Court explained that "[i]ndeterminate language is typical of discretionary rules.  Application of those rules in particular circumstances, however, can supply the requisite clarity."  Implicit in the Court's reasoning is that a habeas petitioner need not have prior notice of the precise day on which his claims will become untimely.  The Court also found that California's timeliness rule is "regularly followed," because it is employed hundreds of times each year.  Alleged inconsistencies in the application of the rule, the Court observed, do not establish that California's courts are applying the rule arbitrarily, because state courts are free to deny a claim on the merits, notwithstanding the possible applicability of a timeliness rule.

Posted in Walker v. Martin, Merits Cases

Recommended Citation: Jud Campbell, Opinion analysis: California’s timeliness rule is an adequate state ground to deny federal habeas review, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 24, 2011, 9:41 AM),