April 24, 2012
SCOTUS Decision in Wood v. Milyard
Today the Supreme Court decided Wood v. Milyard, a case involving the authority of a federal court of appeals to raise sua sponte a limitations defense to a habeas petition. The case builds on the Court’s previous decisions in Granberry v. Greer, 481 U. S. 129 (1987), and Day v. McDonough, 547 U. S. 198 (2006). Justice Ginsburg’s opinion of the Court (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan) holds: "Consistent with Granberry and Day, we decline to adopt an absolute rule barring a court of appeals from raising, on its own motion, a forfeited timeliness defense. . . . [C]ourts of appeals, like district courts, have the authority—though not the obligation—to raise a forfeited timeliness defense on their own initiative." [Slip Op. at 9].
As for how that authority should be exercised, Justice Ginsburg clarifies that "[a]lthough a court of appeals has discretion to address, sua sponte, the timeliness of a habeas petition, appellate courts should reserve that authority for use in exceptional cases." [Slip Op. at 9]. Applying that idea to the facts of Wood, she writes that "[a] court is not at liberty . . . to bypass, override, or excuse a State’s deliberate waiver of a limitations defense. The Tenth Circuit, we accordingly hold, abused its discretion by resurrecting the limitations issue instead of reviewing the District Court’s disposition on the merits of Wood’s claims." [Slip Op. at 2].
Justice Thomas authors a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Scalia, that would give courts less ability to resurrect a state’s potential defenses to a habeas petition [Concurring Op. at 1, 3 (some citations omitted)]:
"Because I continue to think that Day was wrongly decided and that Granberry is inapposite, I cannot join the Court’s opinion. See Day, 547 U. S., at 212–219 (SCALIA, J., joined by THOMAS and BREYER, JJ., dissenting). As the dissent in Day explained, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply in habeas corpus cases to the extent that they are consistent with the Habeas Corpus Rules, the habeas corpus statute, and the historical practice of habeas proceedings. As relevant here, the Rules of Civil Procedure provide that a defendant forfeits his statute of limitations defense if he fails to raise it in his answer or in an amendment thereto. 547 U. S., at 212 (citing Rules 8(c), 12(b), 15(a)). That forfeiture rule is fully consistent with habeas corpus procedure. . . .
"In light of these considerations, I cannot join the Court’s holding that a court of appeals has discretion to consider sua sponte a forfeited limitations defense."