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SCOTUS Gets One Right on Due Process

SCOTUS Gets One Right on Due Process May 31, 2013

The Supreme Court got one right on a criminal justice and due process issue, which is always cause for celebration. And it’s a case from Michigan, McQuiggin v. Perkins, which involves a murder conviction for someone who may well be innocent. Floyd Perkins says he is innocent and he has affidavits from several of the witnesses in his original trial that attest to that. You can read the full ruling here.

The district court ruled against Perkins because he had failed to file for federal habeas corpus relief within one year of his conviction, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, saying in effect that a claim of actual innocence overrides such procedural considerations. The Supreme Court has now upheld that ruling by a 5-4 margin, with Justice Ginsburg writing the opinion and joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito were predictably in dissent, though Scalia’s dissent goes too far even for Alito, who refused to join the last section of it.

Actual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass whether the impediment is a procedural bar, as it was in Schlup v. Delo and House v. Bell, or expiration of the AEDPA statute of limitations, as in this case.

Perkins, who waited nearly six years from the date of the 2002 affidavit to file his petition, maintains that an actual-innocence plea can overcome AEDPA’s one-year limitations period. This Court’s decisions support his view. The Court has not resolved whether a prisoner may be entitled to habeas corpus relief based on a freestanding actual innocence claim, but it has recognized that a prisoner “otherwise subject to defenses of abusive or successive use of the writ may have his federal constitutional claim considered on the merits if he makes a proper showing of actual innocence,”

The Court has applied this “fundamental miscarriage of justice exception” to overcome various procedural defaults, including, as most relevant here, failure to observe state procedural rules, such as filing deadlines. These decisions “see[k] to balance the societal interests infinality, comity, and conservation of scarce judicial resources with the individual interest in justice that arises in the extraordinary case.” Sensitivity to the injustice of incarcerating an innocent individual should not abate when the impediment is AEDPA’s statute of limitations.

This should be utterly obvious, of course, but not to the four most conservative members of the court, who simply do not care whether an innocent man has been imprisoned for his entire life, or even put to death, as long as the proper procedure was followed. This is hardly surprising since Scalia and Thomas have said the same thing in several other cases before. In the Troy Davis case a few years ago, the two of them filed a dissent from an order granting him a new trial to say:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

And their argument here? In essence, it is that this will make judges have to work harder. With this ruling, Scalia says, “floods of stale, frivolous and repetitious petitions [will] inundate the docket of the lower courts and swell our own.” Aww golly gee, my heart bleeds for you.

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