Wood v. Milyard
566 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
In 1987, petitioner was convicted of murder and other crimes by a Colorado court and sentenced to life imprisonment. Petitioner filed a federal habeas petition in 2008. After receiving the petition, the district court asked the State if it planned to argue that the petition was untimely. In response, the State twice informed the district court that it would "not challenge, but [was] not conceding," the timeliness of the petition. Thereafter, the district court ordered the parties to brief both the merits and the timeliness of the petition. At issue was the authority of a federal court to raise, on its own motion, a statute of limitations defense to a habeas corpus petition. The Court held that courts of appeal, like district courts, have the authority - though not the obligation - to raise a forfeited timeliness defense on their own initiative in exceptional cases. The Tenth Circuit abused its discretion when it dismissed the petition as untimely. In the district court, the State was well aware of the statute of limitations defense available to it, and of the arguments that could be made in support of that defense. Yet, the State twice informed the district court that it would "challenge" the timeliness of the petition. In doing so, the State deliberately waived the statute of limitations defense. In light of that waiver, the Tenth Circuit should have followed the district court's lead and decided the merits of the petition. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

WOOD v. MILYARD, WARDEN, et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the tenth circuit

No. 10–9995. Argued February 27, 2012—Decided April 24, 2012

In 1987, petitioner Patrick Wood was convicted of murder and other crimes by a Colorado court and sentenced to life imprisonment. Wood filed a federal habeas petition in 2008. After receiving Wood’s petition, the U. S. District Court asked the State if it planned to argue that the petition was untimely. In response, the State twice informed the District Court that it would “not challenge, but [was] not conceding,” the timeliness of Wood’s petition. Thereafter, the District Court rejected Wood’s claims on the merits. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit ordered the parties to brief both the merits and the timeliness of Wood’s petition. After briefing, the court held the petition time barred, concluding that the court had authority to raise timeliness on its own motion, and that the State had not taken the issue off the table by declining to raise a statute of limitations defense in the District Court.

Held:

     1. Courts of appeals, like district courts, have the authority—though not the obligation—to raise a forfeited timeliness defense on their own initiative in exceptional cases. Pp. 4–9.

          (a) “Ordinarily in civil litigation, a statutory time limitation is forfeited if not raised in a defendant’s answer or in an amendment thereto.” Day v. McDonough, 547 U. S. 198 . An affirmative defense, once forfeited, is excluded from the case and, as a rule, cannot be asserted on appeal.

     In Granberry v. Greer, 481 U. S. 129 , this Court recognized a modest exception to the rule that a federal court will not consider a forfeited defense. There, the Seventh Circuit addressed a nonexhaustion defense the State raised for the first time on appeal. The exhaustion doctrine, this Court noted, is founded on concerns broader than those of the parties; in particular, the doctrine fosters respectful, harmonious relations between the state and federal judiciaries. Id., at 133–135. With that comity interest in mind, the Court held that federal appellate courts have discretion to consider a nonexhaustion argument inadvertently overlooked by the State in the district court. Id. at 132, 134.

     In Day, the Court affirmed a federal district court’s authority to consider a forfeited habeas defense when extraordinary circumstances so warrant. 547 U. S., at 201. The State in Day, having miscalculated a time span, erroneously informed the District Court that Day’s habeas petition was timely. Apprised of the error by a Magistrate Judge, the District Court, sua sponte, dismissed the petition as untimely. This Court affirmed, holding that “district courts are permitted, but not obliged, to consider, sua sponte, the timeliness of a state prisoner’s habeas petition.” Id., at 209. Such leeway was appropriate, the Court again reasoned, because AEDPA’s statute of limitations, like the exhaustion doctrine, “implicat[es] values beyond the concerns of the parties.” Id., at 205.

     The Court clarified, however, that a federal court does not have carte blanche to depart from the principle of party presentation. See Greenlaw v. United States, 554 U. S. 237 –244. It would be “an abuse of discretion” for a court “to override a State’s deliberate waiver of a limitations defense.” Day, 547 U. S., at 202. In Day itself, the State’s timeliness concession resulted from “inadvertent error,” id., at 211, not a deliberate decision to proceed to the merits. Pp. 6–9.

          (b) Consistent with Granberry and Day, the Court declines to adopt an absolute rule barring a court of appeals from raising, on its own motion, a forfeited timeliness defense. The institutional interests served by AEDPA’s statute of limitations are also present when a habeas case moves to the court of appeals, a point Granberry recognized with respect to a nonexhaustion defense. P. 9.

     2. The Tenth Circuit abused its discretion when it dismissed Wood’s petition as untimely. In the District Court, the State was well aware of the statute of limitations defense available to it, and of the arguments that could be made in support of that defense. Yet, the State twice informed the District Court that it would not “challenge” the timeliness of Wood’s petition. In so doing, the State deliberately waived the statute of limitations defense. In light of that waiver, the Tenth Circuit should have followed the District Court’s lead and decided the merits of Wood’s petition. Pp. 9–11.

403 Fed. Appx. 335, reversed and remanded.

     Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Sca-lia, J., joined.

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