Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the final outstanding habeas case this term, Wood v. Milyard. And it was another habeas win!
The Court (via Ginsburg) held that, while a circuit court can sua sponte raise the statute of limitations defense, the court can only do that when the State forfeited the claim in the district court (i.e. failed to preserve) and only then in exceptional circumstances. It cannot be raised sua sponte when the State affirmatively waives the claim.
That's not the best holding that could have happened (best=statute of limitations cannot be raised sua sponte in any situation), but it's still pretty good. In particular, the Court seems to give "exceptional circumstances" a pretty restrictive meaning. So it's not as if the circuit courts have carte blanche to go around sua sponte'ing the statute of limitations everywhere. And in Wood's particular case, the Court concluded that the circuit court abused its discretion in raising the defense sua sponte since the State waived it in the district court. Nice little win.
And the decision was (mostly) unanimous. At least unanimous in result. Thomas concurred (joined by Scalia). These two Justices, furthest to the right, would have gone even further than the majority and held that the defense cannot be raised sua sponte at all -- even when it was forfeited. Thomas offers a very literal reading of the rules and says that they prevent the defense from being raised sua sponte. That's pretty consistent with his judicial philosophy generally -- elevating text above all else. At least he's (ostensibly) consistent.
But it's funny. Someone mentioned this to me today -- the rules are typically the rules unless they are being applied to habeas cases. Then all bets are usually off. The holding here is a good example. As Ginsburg mentioned in her main opinion, there is no way that a circuit court would be allowed to get away with raising a defense sua sponte in a civil case. But habeas is different. The Court felt pretty comfortable carving out an exception to that rule in a habeas case. Because habeas is different.
But even with that, it still counts as a habeas victory. By my count, that's four habeas victories (including a habeas grant!) this term. There was Maples (excusing a procedural default when counsel essentially dropped the ball), then Martinez (excusing a procedural default based on IAC in a collateral proceeding), then Lafler (IAC in plea negotiations - the habeas grant), and now Wood. And even though there were several big losses (Greene comes immediately to mind), that's still a pretty good term in habeas, especially compared to the last term (which I view as potentially the absolute nadir in the history of habeas law -- at least post-AEDPA).
I have yet to put up a post about Lafler. I am thinking that it's probably going to have a pretty big impact, so I hope to share my thoughts on that one at some point soon.