March 07, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Skinner v. Switzer

On March 7, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Skinner v. Switzer, No. 09-9000, holding that a convicted state prisoner seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence may assert that claim in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. §1983.

A Texas jury convicted defendant Henry Skinner and sentenced him to death for murdering his girlfriend and her sons. In preparation for trial, the State had omitted DNA testing of several items of physical evidence.  Texas later enacted a statute that allows prisoners to gain postconviction DNA testing in limited circumstances. Skinner twice moved in state court for DNA testing of the untested biological evidence and was twice denied, and the two denials were affirmed on appeal.  Skinner then filed a federal action for injunctive relief under §1983, alleging that Texas violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by refusing to provide access to physical evidence for the DNA testing he requested.  The district court dismissed Skinner's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, reasoning that postconviction requests for DNA evidence are cognizable only in habeas corpus, not under §1983.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.  Addressing the question that it had left unresolved in District Attorney's Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 557 U. S. ___, ___ (2009), the Court first rejected the State's claim that the challenge was jurisdictionally barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, noting that Skinner asserted an independent federal constitutional due process claim.  The Court then held that, because the relief Skinner sought would not "demonstrate the invalidity" of the state court conviction, Skinner had properly invoked section 1983.  Under the circumstances presented and the Court's precedent, Skinner need not invoke habeas corpus jurisdiction to seek this particular remedy, i.e., DNA testing of physical evidence. 

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

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