Reed v. Goertz: End of state appellate process starts statute of limitations for Sec. 1983 claim challenging postconviction DNA procedures
By Greg Mermelstein, Deputy Director & General Counsel, Missouri Public Defender
The statute of limitations for a Sec. 1983 claim challenging the constitutionality of a state’s postconviction DNA testing procedures does not begin to run until the state appellate process is completed, the U.S. Supreme Court held April 19 in Reed v. Goertz.
Rodney Reed was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He claimed he was innocent, but his conviction was upheld in state appellate and postconviction review, and federal habeas review.
Subsequently, Reed filed a motion in state court under Texas’ postconviction DNA testing law. The state trial court denied Reed’s motion. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later affirmed, and denied a motion for rehearing.
Reed then filed a Sec. 1983 action in U.S. District Court, claiming he was denied due process by the state’s postconviction DNA procedures. The District Court denied relief.
The Fifth Circuit denied relief on grounds that the two-year statute of limitations for Sec. 1983 claims began to run when the state trial court denied the motion, notwithstanding the subsequent state appeal.
The Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve a circuit split on when the statute of limitations begins.
The Court reversed, in a 6-3 opinion by Justice Kavanaugh.
The statute of limitations generally begins to run when a plaintiff has a “complete and present cause of action”, the Court said.
A procedural due process claim “is not complete when the deprivation occurs”, the Court said. “Rather the claim is complete only when the State fails to provide due process.”
Texas’ process for DNA testing includes trial court proceedings and review by the Court of Criminal Appeals, which includes a motion for rehearing, the Court said.
Thus, the state’s alleged failure to provide a fair process was “complete” only “when the state litigation ended and deprived Reed of his asserted liberty interest in DNA testing”, the Court ruled. The process was complete when the appellate court denied the motion for rehearing.
A contrary ruling would have adverse practical consequences, the Court said. If the time began to run at the trial court level, a plaintiff would be required to pursue appeals through the state system, and a federal Sec. 1983 action at the same time.
“That parallel litigation would run counter to core principles of federalism, comity, consistency, and judicial economy,” the Court said. “We see no good reason for such senseless duplication”, the Court said. The state appeal might “cure” any flaw in procedures, the Court said.
In a concluding footnote, the Court expressly declined to decide whether a plaintiff could forgo state appellate review and proceed directly to a Sec. 1983 federal suit.
Justice Alito, joined by Justice Gorsuch, dissented. He said the “logical conclusion” of the Court’s opinion “points to a result that neither Reed nor the Court is willing to embrace: namely, that a due process challenge to the denial of a request for DNA testing is not ripe until state remedies have been exhausted.”
Alito said the Court “reserves judgment” on that issue in its concluding footnote, but “that is where the Court’s reasoning is likely to lead.”
Alito said the Court’s ruling, instead of “clarifying” the law, “may sow confusion” because litigants “are left to guess” if they must pursue full appellate review before filing a Sec. 1983 claim.
Justice Thomas dissented on grounds of lack subject-matter jurisdiction. He said Reed’s claim was one that could only be heard under the Court’s appellate jurisdiction via a writ of certiorari after the state appeal.
Thomas said Reed’s claim presents no original Article III case or controversy which federal courts can consider.