Monday, March 7, 2011
Today's SCOTUS Decision in Skinner v. Switzer: Use of Section 1983 to Compel DNA Testing of Crime-Scene Evidence
Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in Skinner v. Switzer, holding by a 6-3 vote that a § 1983 suit is a proper vehicle for compelling DNA testing of crime-scene evidence. Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) explains:
In Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U. S. 74 (2005), we comprehensively surveyed this Court’s decisions on the respective provinces of §1983 civil rights actions and §2254 federal habeas petitions. Habeas is the exclusive remedy, we reaffirmed, for the prisoner who seeks “immediate or speedier release” from confinement. Id., at 82. Where the prisoner’s claim would not “necessarily spell speedier release,” however, suit may be brought under §1983. Ibid. Adhering to our opinion in Dotson, we hold that a postconviction claim for DNA testing is properly pursued in a §1983 action. Success in the suit gains for the prisoner only access to the DNA evidence, which may prove exculpatory, inculpatory, or inconclusive. In no event will a judgment that simply orders DNA tests “necessarily impl[y] the unlawfulness of the State’s custody.” Id., at 81. We note, however, that the Court’s decision in Osborne [129 S. Ct. 2308 (2009)] severely limits the federal action a state prisoner may bring for DNA testing. Osborne rejected the extension of substantive due process to this area, and left slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process.
Justice Ginsburg described Skinner’s due process claim as follows: “He does not challenge the prosecutor’s conduct or the decisions reached by the [state court] in applying Article 64 to his motions; instead, he challenges, as denying him procedural due process, Texas’ postconviction DNA statute ‘as construed’ by the Texas courts.”
Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito. He writes:
We have not previously addressed whether due process challenges to state collateral review procedures may be brought under §1983, and I would hold that they may not. Challenges to all state procedures for reviewing the validity of a conviction should be treated the same as challenges to state trial procedures, which we have already recognized may not be brought under §1983. Moreover, allowing such challenges under §1983 would undermine Congress’ strict limitations on federal review of state habeas decisions. If cognizable at all, Skinner’s claim sounds in habeas corpus.