January 10, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Gonzalez v. Thaler

On January 10, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Gonzalez v. Thaler, No. 10-895, holding that the requirement of a certificate of appealability under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") is mandatory, but not jurisdictional. The Court also held that a judgment becomes final for purposes of calculating AEDPA's one-year limitations period when the time expires for seeking direct review. 

Rafael Gonzales was convicted of murder in Texas state court.  The Texas Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on July 12, 2006.  Gonzalez then allowed the time for seeking discretionary review with Texas's highest court for criminal appeals to expire on August 11, 2006.  The Texas Court of Appeals issued its mandate on September 26, 2006.  Gonzales filed a federal habeas claim in the Northern District of Texas within the one-year period (as calculated with tolling) as measured from the mandate, but not as measured from the expiration of time to seek review. Without discussing his constitutional claim, the district court dismissed Gonzalez's petition as time barred under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A).

Gonzalez appealed to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that (1) his petition was timely; and (2) his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated.  Without mentioning the Sixth Amendment issue, a Fifth Circuit judge granted a certificate of appealability on the first issue.  The Fifth Circuit considered the appeal and affirmed.  Gonzalez then petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.  In opposition, the State argued for the first time that the Fifth Circuit lacked jurisdiction to decide Gonzalez's appeal because the certificate of appealability failed to indicate a constitutional issue, as required by AEDPA § 2253(c)(3).  The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address that issue and the limitations issue.

First, the Court addressed whether the Fifth Circuit had jurisdiction to decide Gonzalez's appeal, notwithstanding the alleged deficiency in certificate of appealability.  Section 2253(c) requires that, in order for a petitioner to take an appeal, a court must issue a certificate of appealability, which declares that the petitioner made a "substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right."  The certificate must also "indicate" which specific issues satisfy this requirement. Rejecting the State's argument, the Court held that § 2253(c)(3), although mandatory, is not jurisdictional. A "defective" certificate, the Court held, is "not equivalent to the lack of any" certificate.  The Court was particularly persuaded by the fact that Gonzalez himself had properly included both the timeliness and the Sixth Amendment issues in his application for a certificate of appealability.  "A petitioner, having successfully obtained a [certificate of appealability] has no control over how the judge drafts [it] and, as in Gonzalez's case, may have done everything required of him by law."

Second, the Court addressed when, for the purposes of AEDPA's one-year limitations period, a judgment becomes "final."  Relying on Clay v. United States, 537 U.S. 522 (2003), and Jimenez v. Quarterman, 555 U.S. 113 (2009), both of which involved a similar issue, the Court held that, notwithstanding Gonzalez's arguments to the contrary, AEDPA's limitation period begins to run "when the time for pursuing direct review in this Court, or in the state court, expires." Because Gonzalez had not timely filed his federal habeas petition as calculated from that starting point, the Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit's judgment dismissing the petition.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan joined.  Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of the Court

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