When Does the Habeas Statute of Limitations Begin to Run?

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court hears argument today in the case of Jimenez v. Quarterman (No. 07-6994).  The case requires the Court to determine what triggers the one-year statute of limitations for federal habeas corpus claims.  Congress imposed the one-year limitation in 1996, hoping to diminish the number and success of challenges in federal court to state convictions.  The statute, in pertinent part, provides that the one-year clock for filing a federal claim begins to run on “the date on which the [state] judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review.”  This may seem straightforward enough, but Jimenez’s case highlights an ambiguity.  

Although Jimenez initially filed an appeal in his case in 1996, the appeal was dismissed when no brief was filed on his behalf.  No further review was sought in a higher court at that time.  Normally, this would conclude direct review, and the clock would start running for a federal habeas petition.  However, Jimenez persuaded the state courts in 2002 that he should get a second chance at direct review because his lawyer bungled the first time around.  Thus, Jimenez finally got to file his brief in the state court of appeals, but he lost anyway.  State proceedings concluded in June 2005, and Jimenez filed his federal habeas petition less than a month later.  So, when is it that his state judgment “became final by the conclusion of direct review”: when the first direct review process ended, or the second?

Defendants don’t normally get two chances at direct review separated by many years, so it is not surprising that the Court has yet to resolve the issue.  However, the case illustrates one of the problems with the 1996 habeas reforms (which included a number of additional measures intended to reduce the volume of habeas litigation in federal courts): engrafting a bunch of new procedural hurdles for habeas petitioners onto the existing legal framework has resulted in years of litigation, including several Supreme Court cases, as the courts have wrestled with one statutory ambiguity after another.  To the extent the goal was to provide relief for busy federal judges, perhaps Congress should have left well enough alone.

For readers interested in more information about Jimenez, SCOTUS Blog has a helpful summary of the arguments made in the parties’ briefs here.

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