The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard the case of a Texas death-row inmate seeking DNA testing for evidence that he believes will clear him. A federal appeals court threw out Rodney Reed’s federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Texas law governing DNA testing, explaining that Reed had filed his suit too late. Although several justices on Tuesday appeared ready to reject the deadline imposed by the lower court, there was no clear consensus around an alternative rule – and Reed’s lawsuit would still be too late under one of the options that the justices debated.
Reed was sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites, but he has consistently maintained his innocence, explaining that he was in a secret relationship with Stites. He is seeking to have DNA testing conducted on several items found on or near Stites’ body and in the truck she often drove, and he has suggested that Stites’ fiancé, who had learned about her relationship with Reed, was actually responsible for the murder.
A state trial court turned down Reed’s request for DNA testing, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, upheld that ruling and denied Reed’s petition to reconsider the case. Reed then went to federal district court in Texas, where he argued that the Texas law governing post-conviction DNA testing violates his right to due process by requiring him to comply with unconstitutional procedures before he can use the testing.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit never reached the merits of Reed’s claim. Although Reed had filed his lawsuit within two years of the TCCA’s denial of rehearing, the 5th Circuit ruled that Reed should have instead filed his lawsuit within two years of the trial court’s decision denying his request for DNA testing.
Representing Reed, lawyer Parker Rider-Longmaid told the justices that the statute of limitations began to run at the end of the state-court litigation denying Reed’s request for DNA testing – in this case, when the TCCA denied rehearing. Because Reed’s federal civil rights lawsuit challenges the state’s DNA-testing law, Rider-Longmaid explained, it makes sense to wait until the state court has said what the law means. And such a rule, Rider-Longmaid added, is “simple, predictable, and sensible.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was sympathetic. Under the Supreme Court’s own rules, she observed, the window to file a petition for review challenging a state-court judgment begins to run when the state court denies rehearing. The rationale behind that rule, she noted, is that the state court could still change its decision at the rehearing stage – just as the TCCA could have done in Reed’s case.
Justice Samuel Alito was more skeptical. How often, he asked Rider-Longmaid, does the TCCA actually grant rehearing?
Arguing for the state, Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone told the court that rehearing is “rare” in the TCCA and, in this case, “changed nothing about the rights and obligations under Texas law or the U.S. Constitution” to Reed. But in a case in which the TCCA does grant rehearing, he added, the statute of limitations would start to run then.
Alito remarked that although the 5th Circuit had focused on the trial court’s denial of Reed’s request for DNA testing as the point at which the statute of limitations began to run, the state now concedes that the clock started “no later than” the TCCA’s April 2017 decision. As a result, Alito stressed (and Rider-Longmaid agreed), the question before the justices is “quite narrow” – whether, for a claim that hinges on a state court’s “authoritative construction” of state law, the statute of limitations begins to run with the TCCA’s opinion or with the denial of rehearing.
Justice Elena Kagan seemed inclined to agree with Reed that the statute of limitations begins to run with the denial of rehearing. Responding to Stone’s contention that the denial of rehearing “changed nothing,” she countered that “[i]f rehearing had been granted and the decision had been revised, then it would have changed something.” And the suggestion that the point at which the statute of limitations begins to run would change if rehearing were granted, she posited, would merely create confusion. “Why isn’t the simpler rule just to say we don’t know what the authoritative construction of the court of appeals is until the court of appeals’ process has concluded, the end?”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett also voiced some support for Reed. Reed’s federal civil rights claim, she said, is that the state’s procedures were not sufficient to protect Reed’s interest in having the DNA testing done. And the DNA-testing law, she continued, guarantees that Reed is “not deprived of a constitutional right erroneously” by giving him “the opportunity to appeal to the CCA and let the CCA correct any mistake that the trial court has made.” Reed doesn’t have a right to sue, and the statute of limitations would not start to run, she concluded, “until the procedures have failed him.”
Several justices did not clearly tip their hands. When Rider-Longmaid suggested that although the statute of limitations for Reed and other inmates would not start to run until the TCCA denied rehearing, an inmate could opt out of the state-court proceedings and bring a lawsuit in federal court at any time, Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back. “You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch offered a different option altogether, asking Stone why neither side had argued that the statute of limitations would begin to run when the state court issued its mandate – the official notification of its decision. (Stone responded that the mandate is “ministerial,” and it does not affect the rights of the parties.)
With Justice Brett Kavanaugh having not asked any substantive questions, the outcome of the case became even more difficult to predict. There was little open support for the rule espoused by the 5th Circuit, but Reed needs the justices not simply to reject the 5th Circuit’s rule but also adopt his own rule to revive his lawsuit.
A decision in the case is expected sometime next year.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.