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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Day: Court can invoke time limitations sua sponte

In Day v. McDonough, No. 04-1324 (Apr. 25, 2006), the Supreme Court held that a federal district court has the discretion, notwithstanding a State’s failure to assert in its answer to a habeas petition a time-bar defense under the one-year statute of limitations of AEDPA, to sua sponte dismiss a petition when it finds the petition to be time-barred.
Day’s federal habeas petition was time-barred under then-existing Circuit precedent (the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Lawrence v. Florida to determine whether this Circuit should remain good law). The States’s response miscalculated the time limitation, and did not seek dismissal of the petition on limitations grounds. The district court, however, spotted the time-bar, and sua sponte dismissed the petition. The Supreme Court rejected the argument that the district court lacked authority to dismiss the petition when the State had waived the defense.
The Court recognized that a limitations defense is not jurisdictional. However, the Court analogized the limitations defense to a failure to exhaust state remedies, a defense which district courts can raise sua sponte. The Court interpreted the habeas rules to give the district courts flexibility and discretion to apply defenses to habeas petitions, notwithstanding the State’s initial failure to raise them. The Court noted that a district court is not obligated to act on its own initiative and dismiss a time-barred petition, but has discretion to do so.