My Unanimous Supreme Court "Victory"

By Mike Dorf

Last week, in Walker v. Martin, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed a 9th Circuit habeas corpus ruling.  I know what you're thinking: What else is new?  But wait.  Although the result in the case is pro-government, it turns out that the Court reaffirmed an important pro-habeas-petitioner principle--and did that unanimously too.

Martin was convicted of murder and robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment.  After some procedural wrangling, he filed a state habeas petition seeking a new trial based on the claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance of counsel, but he did so nearly 5 years after his conviction had become final.  Instead of ruling that Martin had had constitutionally adequate counsel, the California Supreme Court dismissed his state habeas petition as untimely, under a state rule that requires that such petitions be filed in a "reasonable" time.  Martin then made the same claim in federal court (as the federal habeas statute allows).  California argued that Martin was not entitled to federal habeas relief because he had failed to preserve his objections by properly presenting them to the state courts.  In habeas lingo, the state argued that Martin--having unduly delayed filing in state court--was "procedurally barred" from filing in federal court.

Under longstanding Supreme Court case law, when a state asserts a procedural bar of this sort, the federal courts do not grant habeas relief (absent exceptions not relevant here), so long as the state procedural rule which the habeas petitioner is alleged to have violated is "adequate."  The core idea here is that states are entitled to insist that prisoners comply with their procedural rules for presenting claims, but that federal courts must be sensitive to the possibility of states making up bogus procedural rules to defeat federal claims.  The "adequacy" inquiry guards against the latter possibility.

Martin argued--and the 9th Circuit agreed--that California's "reasonable time" requirement was so unclear in principle and was applied so inconsistently in practice that it did not constitute a bona fide state procedural rule.  Instead, the 9th Circuit concluded, California was selectively or perhaps arbitrarily invoking the reasonableness requirement so as to defeat federal rights (like the right to effective counsel at issue in the Martin case).

The SCOTUS unanimously disagreed.  A standard like reasonableness (as opposed to a rule like file-within-one-year) can be consistently applied, Justice Ginsburg explained for the Court, even though some relatively lengthy periods of delay are deemed reasonable while some relatively short periods of delay are deemed unreasonable.  That's just part of what it means to have a standard, the Court concluded.  And certainly, the Court said, California could deem a nearly five-year delay "unreasonable."  Thus, the Court found that California's application of its procedural bar was in fact adequate.

So, how is this a victory for habeas petitioners?  It's a victory insofar as Martin avoided losing in a more spectacular fashion.  The warden and an amicus for him had argued that the Court should simply chuck the adequacy inquiry altogether, characterizing it as a relic of a bygone era when state courts were hostile to the assertion of federal rights.  Alarmed by this suggestion, and concerned that abolition of the adequacy inquiry would wreak havoc with a larger set of doctrines governing Supreme Court jurisdiction, I filed a brief on behalf of myself and some other federal courts scholars urging the Court not to eliminate adequacy review of state procedural bars in habeas cases.  And on that issue, we won!  The Court said:

Today’s decision, trained on California’s timeliness rule for habeas petitions, leaves unaltered this Court’s repeated recognition that federal courts must carefully examine state procedural requirements to ensure that they do not operate to discriminate against claims of federal rights.

That's a small victory to be sure, but in this business, you take your wins where you can.