U.S. Supreme Court Establishes Limitations on Right to Habeas Corpus Review – Gonzalez v. Thaler

The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed two provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) earlier this year in Gonzalez v. Thaler, 132 S. Ct. 641 (2012). The case involved procedural issues in federal petitions for habeas corpus by state prisoners. The AEDPA requires a prisoner to obtain a certificate of appealability (COA) showing a constitutional violation in order to appeal a final order in a habeas case. 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1). It also sets a deadline of one year from the date a judgment becomes “final” to file a habeas petition. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A). The Court considered whether the lack of a clear statement of a constitutional right in a COA deprived an appellate court of subject matter jurisdiction, as well as the point at which the one-year statute of limitations begins to run.

The petitioner, Rafael Gonzalez, was in a Texas state prison for a murder conviction. The state court of appeals affirmed his conviction in July 2006, and the time to appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest appellate court for criminal cases, passed on August 11, 2006. On September 26, 2006, the appellate court issued a mandate.

Gonzalez filed a federal habeas petition on January 24, 2008, after a state petition was denied. He claimed a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, citing the period of almost a decade between his indictment and his trial. The district court dismissed the petition as untimely, holding that the statute of limitations began when the deadline to appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals passed, not, as Gonzalez claimed, when the appellate court issued its mandate. Even after tolling the statute of limitations for the time period of his state habeas case, the court found that he missed the deadline. It did not issue a COA as to the constitutional claim.

Appealing to the Fifth Circuit, Gonzalez argued that his federal habeas petition was timely, and he reasserted his Sixth Amendment claim. The Court of Appeals issued a COA on the question of timeliness, but not the Sixth Amendment claim. It affirmed the district court’s dismissal, ruling that the statute started to run the date the judgment became final.

The State of Texas brought up the issue of jurisdiction over the constitutional issue for the first time in its brief opposing Gonzalez’s petition for a writ of certiorari. The state argued that the appellate court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the district court never addressed the Sixth Amendment claim in its COA. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the questions of whether the appellate court had jurisdiction despite defects in the COA, and when the statute of limitations for the habeas petition began.

The Court held that the rule requiring a COA in § 2253 is “nonjurisdictional,” Gonzalez, 132 S. Ct. at 652, and that the Fifth Circuit therefore had jurisdiction over Gonzalez’s appeal. The main issue regarding the time limit to file a federal habeas petition was that, applying the lower court’s interpretation of § 2244 that the one-year period begins when the right to appeal expired, that deadline would be before the deadline for a state habeas petition. Under Texas law, the time period to file a habeas petition begins when the appellate court issues a mandate. The Court nevertheless affirmed the lower court decisions.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To learn more about how he can assist you in your legal matter, contact him online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

U.S. Supreme Court Will Consider Case of Police Detention Related to a Search Warrant, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 14, 2012
State and Federal Criminal Laws Conflict with One Another in North Carolina Firearms Case, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 8, 2012
On Tenth Anniversary of 9-11, a Look at Bourmediene v. Bush, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 13, 2011

Contact Information