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Habeas – Procedural Default – Applicable to “Discretionary” Postconviction Deadline

Walker v. Charles W. Martin, USSC No. 09-996, 2/23/11

State court time limit for seeking postconviction relief needn’t be “fixed,” but instead may be discretionary in nature, for purposes of the habeas default rule.

In a recent decision, Beard v. Kindler, 558 U. S. ___ (2009), this Court clarified that a state procedural bar may count as an adequate and independent ground for denying a federal habeas petition even if the state court had discretion to reach the merits despite the default. Guided by that decision, we hold that California is not put to the choice of imposing a specific deadline for habeas petitions(which would almost certainly rule out Martin’s nearly five-year delay) or preserving the flexibility of current practice, “but only at the cost of undermining the finality of state court judgments.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 7). In so ruling, we stress that Martin has not alleged that California’s time bar, either by design or in operation, discriminates against federal claims or claimants.

The 9th Circuit had held that a discretionary standard of timeliness wasn’t enforceable on federal habeas review, because it lacked sufficient certainty and clarity. The Court now rejects that view. (“Indeterminate language is typical of discretionary rules. Application of those rules in particular circumstances, however, can supply the requisite clarity.”) Nor does it matter that the state’s procedural bar “is not regularly followed.”

A discretionary rule ought not be disregarded automatically upon a showing of seeming inconsistencies.7 Discretion enables a court to home in on case-specific considerations and to avoid the harsh results that sometimes attend consistent application of an unyielding rule. See Prihoda v. McCaughtry, 910 F. 2d 1379, 1385 (CA7 1990) (“Uncertainty is not enough to disqualify a state’s procedural ground as one ‘adequate’ under federal law. If it were, states would be induced to make their rules draconian . . . .”).

The Court reserves the possibility that state-court imposition of “novel and unforeseeable” procedural requirements would be ignored, but Martin doesn’t argue such a possibility on these facts.

How significant is this embellishment of Kindler? Very, said Kurt Scheidegger, because it eliminates “a major source of delay in habeas litigation.” Jonathan Kirshbaum, who approaches habeas litigation from a much different perspective, worries about the result for habeas litigants, but isn’t ready to concede defeat on this front.

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