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Request to Answer Question of State Law–Habeas Deadlines

Case Name: Robinson v. Lewis (2020) 9 Cal.5th 883
Case #: S228137
Last Updated: July 20, 2020

The California Supreme Court granted the Ninth Circuit’s request for the court to decide a question of California law. The question presented, as phrased in the request, is: When a state habeas petitioner has no good cause for delay, at what point in time is that state prisoner’s petition, filed in a California court of review to challenge a lower state court’s disposition of the prisoner’s claims, untimely under California law; specifically, is a habeas petition untimely filed after an unexplained 66-day delay between the time a California trial court denies the petition and the time the petition is filed in the California Court of Appeal?

On December 18, 2015, the court ordered further action in the matter deferred pending a determination whether to restate the question of California law to be decided.

On May 25, 2016, the court ordered the question of California law presented in a matter pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit restated as follows: “When a California court denies a claim in a petition for writ of habeas corpus, and the petitioner subsequently files the same or a similar claim in a petition for writ of habeas corpus directed to the original jurisdiction of a higher court, what is the significance, if any, of the period of time between the earlier petition’s denial and the subsequent petition’s filing (66 days in this case) for the purpose of determining the subsequent claim’s timeliness under California law?”

Opinion By: Justice Groban (unanimous decision)
Held: In response to a question from the Ninth Circuit regarding timeliness of state habeas petitions, the California Supreme Court determined that, if a habeas petitioner had otherwise presented a claim without substantial delay, a delay of up to 120 days between denial of a habeas petition in a lower court and the filing of a new petition in a higher court would never be considered substantial. Following his direct appeal, Robinson filed a pro se state habeas petition challenging his state court judgment in the trial court 94 days after the certiorari deadline in his case passed. The petition was denied. Sixty-six days later, he filed a new habeas petition in the Court of Appeal raising the same claims, which was denied. Robinson filed a new petition in the California Supreme Court 91 days later, which was likewise denied. After a delay of 139 days, Robinson filed a federal habeas petition in district court. Adding up the delays attributable to Robinson, his federal petition was filed 390 days after his conviction became final. The district court denied the petition as barred by the federal one-year statute of limitations. (See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d).) Robinson appealed. The Ninth Circuit, seeking to clarify what length of delay between petitions (referred to as “gap delay”) is permissible under California law, certified a question to the California Supreme Court. Answer: In California, there are no specific time limits for either filing the first habeas petition or filing subsequent petitions in a higher court for individuals not sentenced to death. Instead, courts employ a reasonableness standard and follow an analysis set forth in In re Robbins (1998) 18 Cal.4th 770, 780. After reviewing California’s habeas procedures and timeliness rules, the court exercised its inherent authority to establish a time period for gap delay that provides a certain safe harbor for petitioners: A new habeas petition filed in a higher court within 120 days of the lower court’s denial will never be considered untimely due to gap delay. Delay beyond that time period would be subject to the normal In re Robbins analysis. In this case, the 66-day gap between the trial court’s denial and the filing of a new habeas petition in the Court of Appeal would not be considered a substantial delay.

In California, a state habeas petition that is not related to a pending direct appeal should first be filed in the trial court, and a habeas petition filed in a higher court is a new petition invoking the higher court’s original jurisdiction. As part of its analysis of the question in this case, the Supreme Court explained California’s habeas procedures. Petitioners challenging a state court judgment by means of a habeas petition that is not related to a pending direct appeal should first file the petition in the superior court that rendered the judgment. If the superior court denies the petition, the petitioner may file a new petition in the Court of Appeal. A petition in the Court of Appeal is a new petition invoking that court’s original jurisdiction. The new petition can add to or attempt to bolster the claims made in the earlier petition. If a lower court has made factual findings following an evidentiary hearing, the higher court will give those findings great weight, but it is not bound by them. The Court of Appeal has discretion to deny without prejudice a petition presenting claims that had not first been presented to the superior court if the court believes it is beneficial to do so. If the Court of Appeal denies the petition, the petitioner may either file a petition for review in the California Supreme Court or file a new habeas petition invoking the court’s original jurisdiction. If a petition for review is filed, it must be filed within 10 days of finality of the Court of Appeal decision. The Supreme Court only reviews the Court of Appeal’s rulings on the claims presented in a previous habeas petition if a petition for review is filed to challenge the Court of Appeal’s denial of the previous habeas petition. In the event a new, original habeas petition is filed in the California Supreme Court, the court does not directly review the lower courts’ rulings but will give any lower court’s factual findings great weight if an evidentiary hearing was held. The California Supreme Court also has discretion to deny without prejudice a petition presenting claims that had not previously been presented to the lower courts.

In California, the timeliness of a habeas petition is judged on a claim-by-claim basis, not as a whole. The California Supreme Court also clarified that courts determine whether claims in a habeas petition have been timely filed, not whether the petition as a whole was timely filed. “A given petition containing multiple claims might have one or more claims that are untimely and one or more claims that are timely. In that event, we might bar the specific untimely claims. But we do not find a petition itself to be untimely.” This case was decided on 7/20/2020.

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