Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Ninth Circuit Rules:
State Timeliness Restrictions on Habeas Corpus Petitions May Be Valid
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
California’s timeliness restrictions on habeas corpus petitions must be respected by federal courts, but only if they have been applied consistently, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
In a mixed result for the state’s trend toward trimming habeas corpus options for convicted criminals, the Ninth Circuit said the time limits set out in a pair of state Supreme Court opinions from the 1990s stand sufficiently apart from federal procedures to establish an independent state procedural ground for denying habeas petitions.
But the court said it was not clear whether the state’s untimeliness standards have been applied consistently and sent the petition of long-term prisoner Joseph Murl Bennett back to the U.S. District Court.
“[W]e cannot conclude, on the record before us, that the untimeliness rule is an adequate state procedural ground,” Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote. “To be deemed adequate, the state law ground for decision must be well-established and consistently applied.”
The ruling is the latest attempt by the federal court to allow state justices to make final determinations on denial of some habeas corpus petitions.
Bennett, who was convicted in 1986 and is serving a 42-year sentence for rape, burglary, assault and other charges, filed writs in the Los Angeles Superior Court, this District’s Court of Appeal and the state Supreme Court.
‘Lack of Diligence’
All were turned down. The California Supreme Court cited “lack of diligence” in filing the petition in its order denying the writ and cited to its 1993 ruling in In re Clark and its 1998 decision in In re Robbins, in which the court ruled that it would no longer consider federal law in denying a petition on timeliness grounds.
Bennett then petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which dismissed the motion with prejudice. The Ninth Circuit granted review on the question of whether the state court’s citation of Clark and Robbins, both of which were decided several years after Bennett was convicted, could stand as an independent and adequate state bar so as to render the petition procedurally defaulted.
Wardlaw said federal courts that have looked at the effect of Clark and Robbins and the time limits they impose on filing habeas writs concluded that the untimeliness rule cannot stand as an independent and adequate state ground for barring federal habeas review if the writs were filed before the two decisions came out.
Bennett delayed filing for 12 years—six before Clark was decided, but also six more after.
Bennett’s substantial, continuing delay after Clark issued is a continuous post-Clark default,” Wardlaw said.
“[W]e respect the California Supreme Court’s sovereign right to interpret its state constitution independent of federal law,” Wardlaw said.
But she said there was still a question of whether the untimeliness bar was adequate, because there was an insufficient showing that it has been applied fairly and equally.
The case is Bennett v. Mueller, 00-56199.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company