Lonchar v. Thomas - 517 U.S. 314 (1996)
OCTOBER TERM, 1995
LONCHAR v. THOMAS, WARDEN
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 95-5015. Argued December 4, 1995-Decided April 1, 1996
Petitioner Lonchar was sentenced to death for murder nine years ago. In the years following the affirmance of his conviction and sentence, his sister and brother each filed "next friend" state habeas petitions, which Lonchar opposed, and Lonchar filed, and then had dismissed, a state habeas petition. Shortly before his scheduled execution, he filed another state habeas petition. When it was denied, he filed this "eleventh hour" federal petition, his first. Reasoning that federal Habeas Corpus Rule 9, not some generalized equitable authority to dismiss, governed the case, the District Court held that Lonchar's conduct in waiting almost six years to file his federal petition did not constitute an independent basis for rejecting the petition and granted a stay to permit time for consideration of other grounds for dismissal raised by the State. The Court of Appeals vacated the stay. It held that equitable doctrines independent of Rule 9 applied, relying chiefly on this Court's per curiam order in Gomez v. United States Dist. Gourt for Northern Dist of Gal., 503 U. S. 653. Setting aside the Rules and traditional habeas doctrines, the court concluded that Lonchar did not merit equitable relief.
1. The principle of Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U. S. 880, applies when a district court is faced with a request for a stay in a first federal habeas case: If the district court cannot dismiss the petition on the merits before the scheduled execution, it is obligated to address the merits and must issue a stay to prevent the case from becoming moot. If the court lacks authority to directly dispose of the petition on the merits, it would abuse its discretion by attempting to achieve the same result indirectly by denying a stay. Since Lonchar's claims certainly seem substantial enough to prevent dismissal under Habeas Corpus Rule 4 and the State does not argue to the contrary, the courts below correctly assumed that he could not be denied a stay unless his petition was properly subject to dismissal. This Court's Gomez order has not displaced Barefoot's rationale with one permitting denial of a stay in first federal habeas cases, even when the district court lacks authority to dismiss the petition on the merits. Gomez did not involve a denial of a stay in a case in which the lower court had no authority to dismiss the petition or a
first habeas petition, and it neither discussed nor cited Barefoot, much less repudiated its rationale. Pp. 319-321.
2. The Court of Appeals erred in dismissing Lonchar's first federal petition for special ad hoc "equitable" reasons not encompassed within the relevant statutes, the Federal Habeas Corpus Rules, or prior precedents. First, the history of the Great Writ reveals, not individual judges dismissing writs for ad hoc reasons, but, rather, the gradual evolution of more formal judicial, statutory, or rules-based doctrines of law that regularize and thereby narrow the discretion that individual judges can freely exercise. See, e. g., McCleskey v. Zant, 499 U. S. 467, 479489. Second, the fact that the writ has been called an "equitable" remedy, see, e. g., Gomez, supra, at 653-654, does not authorize a court to ignore this body of statutes, rules, and precedents. Rather, "courts of equity must be governed by rules and precedents no less than the courts of law," Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U. S. 70, 127 (THOMAS, J., concurring). The arguments against ad hoc departure from settled rules seem particularly strong when dismissal of a first habeas petition is at issue, since such dismissal denies the petitioner the protections of the Great Writ entirely. See Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85, 95. Third, Rule 9(a)-which permits courts to dismiss a habeas petition when "it appears that the state ... has been prejudiced in its ability to respond ... by delay in [the petition's] filing" -specifically and directly addresses the delay factor that led the Court of Appeals to dismiss Lonchar's petition. The District Court was not asked to, and did not, make a finding of prejudice in this case, whereas the Rule's history makes plain that the prejudice requirement represents a critical element in the balancing of interests undertaken by Congress and the Rule's framers, which courts may not undermine through the exercise of background equitable powers. See Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States, 487 U. S. 250, 255. Fourth, contrary to the Court of Appeals' view, Gomez, supra, at 653-654, did not authorize ad hoc equitable departures from the Habeas Corpus Rules and did not purport to work a significant change in the law applicable to the dismissal of first habeas petitions. Fifth, the fact that Lonchar filed his petition at the "eleventh hour" does not lead to a different conclusion. Gomez, supra, at 654, and, e. g., Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U. S. 333, 341, n. 7, distinguished. The complexity inherent in developing fair and effective rules to minimize the harms created by last-minute petitions in capital cases offers a practical caution against a judicial attempt, outside the framework of the Habeas Rules, to fashion reforms concerning first federal habeas petitions. Sixth, a different result is not warranted by the special circumstances in this case, including the "next friend" petitions filed by Lonchar's siblings, his filing and later withdrawal of his own state habeas petition, and the fact that his motive for