June 14, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Holland v. Florida

On June 14, 2010, the Supreme Court decided Holland v. Florida, No. 09-5327, holding that the one-year deadline under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d), for seeking federal habeas corpus relief from a death sentence is subject to principles of "equitable tolling" if the defendant has pursued his rights diligently and "extraordinary circumstances" prevented a timely filing. On the facts of this case, those circumstances may be presented by the "gross negligence" of the defendant's court-appointed attorney in failing to file a timely petition for the writ despite the defendant's repeatedly reminding him of the deadline and asking him to act.

Albert Holland was convicted of first-degree murder in Florida state court and sentenced to death. The Florida courts affirmed his conviction and denied collateral relief. He filed a pro se petition in federal court for a writ of habeas corpus, but he did so only after the one-year deadline imposed by AEDPA. The record revealed that Holland repeatedly asked his court-appointed defense counsel to file a petition, pointed out the relevant statutory deadline, and repeatedly asked the state court to remove the attorney when no action was taken, and filed his petition per se promptly after learning that his attorney had failed to file before the deadline. Based on these facts, Holland asked the district court to toll the statutory limitations period, but the court refused to do so, holding that he had not demonstrated the due diligence that was necessary to invoke equitable tolling principles. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, but on different grounds, holding that Holland's case did not present "extraordinary circumstances" justifying equitable relief and stating that an attorney's unprofessional conduct, even if grossly negligent, presents such circumstances only if the attorney acted in bad faith or dishonestly or was subject to divided loyalty or mental impairment.

The Supreme Court reversed. Because the AEDPA deadline has been held not to be jurisdictional, the Court said, a rebuttable presumption exists that the doctrine of equitable tolling applies, as it has traditionally applied to substantive issues of habeas law. Although AEDPA seeks to eliminate delays in the federal habeas review process, it tries to do so without undermining basic habeas corpus principles, under which the timeliness of a petition has always been subject to equitable considerations. The unique status of the "Great Writ" as the only writ specifically protected by the Constitution counsels hesitancy before interpreting AEDPA's silence on equitable tolling as a statement of congressional intent to "close courthouse doors that a strong equitable claim would ordinarily keep open."

The Court further held that the Eleventh Circuit's standard for determining when a lawyer's misconduct presents "extraordinary circumstances" justifying relief from the limitations deadline was too rigid. The existence of such circumstances must be determined on a case-by-case basis, with the reviewing court demonstrating "flexibility" and avoiding "mechanical rules." Although "a garden variety claim of excusable neglect" will not permit equitable relief, the facts of this case demonstrate a far more serious instance of attorney misconduct than that. The Court declined to hold that "extraordinary circumstances" had been established here, instead remanding to allow the Eleventh Circuit to apply the correct standard. But it specifically rejected the district court's conclusion that Holland had not been diligent in pursuing his rights, considering his repeated letters to his lawyer seeking crucial information that the lawyer never provided and giving legal direction that the lawyer failed to pursue.

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

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