WASHINGTON (CN) - A majority of Supreme Court justices on Monday seemed to agree that 5 years was too long for a prisoner to wait before filing federal habeas claims after having been sentenced to life in prison without parole, agreeing with a California rule for untimeliness. "Five years is coming in too late," Justice Antonin Scalia said.
California prisoner Charles Martin was sentenced to life without parole in 1995 for murder and robbery, a sentence that was affirmed by the California Court of Appeal in 1997. In 1999, Martin filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, and in 2002, he filed a second petition with the California Supreme Court containing new claims, which the court said were forfeited for lack of timeliness, a decision that the district court upheld. On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed, requesting that the lower court determine if the state's timeliness rule was adequate to bar federal habeas claims. The court said it was adequate and the 9th Circuit reversed again, finding it to be inadequate because the state failed to show that it was clearly and consistently applied.
Justice Elena Kagan asked California Deputy Attorney General Todd Marshall when the state would consider Martin's claims untimely, seeking a time constraints standard. "My standard is not exact," Kagan said. "It's just around. Around what? Around 6 to 12 months, around 3 years, around someplace in the middle?"
Marshall said case law provided for a span of between about 5 and 18 months, but he also argued that there wasn't a defined timeline and there didn't have to be before the state's standard to be adequate.
"Do you think 5 years is too long, though?" Scalia asked.
"Yes," Marshall said.
"Yes," Scalia repeated.
"I take your point that nobody can say exactly when Mr. Martin's claims became untimely, but five years is untimely, isn't it?" Kagan asked the Martin's attorney, Michael Bigelow.
Bigelow said five years was not unheard of in the scope of previously decided cases in California.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor tried to determine if the state was being consistent in its application of its standard, setting up a hypothetical in which a group of similarly situated litigants requesting that their sentences be corrected, but submitting the request at different times, would see some of their requests time barred and some granted.
Scalia argued that the state did not have to be consistent because it retained the ability to grant relief to people for a variety of reasons.
"I don't see why the state has to be consistent in it....If as a matter of grace, it can allow some people, so long as the people who are denied had every reason to believe that they were coming in too late, and five years is coming in too late," Scalia said. "The issue is whether those people who filed five years later and knew that it was very late, whether they are entitled to have their cases heard."
Bigelow argued that the vast majority of prisoners filing habeas cases had little education and could not be held accountable for not knowing the guidelines if California did not set any.
"They have got a better chance of meeting deadlines if they know what those deadlines are," Bigelow said.
"Do you really need case law to tell you that 5 years is not 'as promptly as circumstances permit' when you have no justification?" Scalia asked.
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