The Supreme Court on Wednesday revived the case of a man on death-row in Texas who is seeking DNA testing to provide evidence that he asserts will clear him. By a vote of 6-3, the justices reversed a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that Rodney Reed had filed his challenge to the Texas law governing DNA testing too late.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the court’s six-page opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and the court’s three liberal justices – Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in a solo opinion; Justice Samuel Alito dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Reed was sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites. He has insisted that he was in a secret relationship with Stites and did not kill her. Instead, he suggested, Stites’ fiancé, a white police officer, had found out about her relationship with Reed, who is Black, and was actually responsible for her death.
Reed went to state court, seeking to have DNA testing conducted on several items found on or near Stites’ body and in the truck she often drove. When those efforts were unsuccessful, Reed then went to federal 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 ruled that Reed should have filed his lawsuit within two years of the trial court’s decision denying his request for DNA testing. On Wednesday, the court reversed that decision.
Both Reed and Texas agree, Kavanaugh observed, that the statute of limitations for his claim is two years. The question before the Supreme Court is when the clock on that two-year statute of limitations began to run. Normally, Kavanaugh explained, that occurs when a plaintiff has a “complete and present cause of action” – that is, when the plaintiff can actually file a lawsuit and obtain relief.
Reed contends that the state’s process to consider his request for DNA testing was fundamentally unfair, Kavanaugh wrote. Therefore, Kavanaugh continued, in this case, Texas’s “alleged failure to provide Reed with a fundamentally fair process was complete,” and the statute of limitations began to run, only once “the state litigation ended and deprived Reed of his asserted liberty interest in DNA testing.” That end, Kavanaugh wrote, came when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Reed’s motion for rehearing on his request for DNA testing, making Reed’s federal lawsuit timely.
Such a rule, Kavanaugh reasoned, makes sense, particularly when compared with the consequences of the state’s proposed rule. If the statute of limitations began to run after the state court denied a request for DNA testing, then the plaintiff would likely file his federal claim even while his state appeals continued, leading to “senseless duplication.” And allowing the state appeals process to play out could focus or even eliminate the need for a federal lawsuit, Kavanaugh added.
Thomas argued in dissent that, even if Reed had filed his federal challenge on time, the district court did not have the power to review Reed’s claim because his lawsuit boils down to an appeal of the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – which does not fall within the federal courts’ jurisdiction.
Alito, joined by Gorsuch, disagreed more directly with the core of the majority’s decision. He conceded that there is “room for debate about exactly when Reed’s DNA testing claim accrued.” But Alito was unconvinced in particular that the statute of limitations begins to run when a state’s highest court refuses to rehear and overturn its interpretation of the state testing statute. At the very least, Alito concluded, the limitations period begins to run when the highest state court issues that interpretation in the first place. “One need not have ‘supernatural foresight,’” Alito posited, “in order to predict that rehearing is unlikely to be granted. And it is hard to see how requiring” plaintiffs like Reed “to sue within two years after a state high court decision is issued is unfair.”
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.