April 24, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Wood v. Milyard

On April 24, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Wood v. Milyard, No. 10-9995, holding that while courts of appeal have the authority (though not the duty) to raise a forfeited timeliness defense in exceptional habeas cases, they should not override the State's deliberate waiver of that defense. 

A Colorado court convicted Wood of certain crimes and sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1987. Wood filed a federal habeas petition in 2008. In habeas proceedings, the State twice informed the District Court that it would "not challenge, but [was] not conceding," the timeliness of Wood's petition. The District Court subsequently rejected Wood's claims on the merits. After directing the parties to brief both the merits and the timeliness of Wood's petition, the Tenth Circuit affirmed its denial solely on timeliness grounds.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that the Tenth Circuit abused its discretion by "resurrecting" a statute of limitations defense that had been deliberately waived by the State. Consistent with its previous decisions, the Court declined to adopt an absolute rule barring a court of appeals from raising a forfeited timeliness defense in a habeas case on its own motion. It reasoned that statutes of limitations implicate institutional interests beyond the concerns of the parties. The Court also recognized, however, that "a federal court does not have carte blanche to depart from the principle of party presentation basic to our adversary system." It thus distinguished a forfeiture based on inadvertent error from a deliberate decision to proceed to the merits. Finding a deliberate waiver by the State, the Court held that the Tenth Circuit abused its discretion. It should have reviewed "the District Court's disposition of the merits of Wood's claims."

Justice Ginsburg delivered the Court's opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Scalia joined.

Download Opinion of the Court

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