558 U.S. 985 (2009), 09-166, United States v. Seale

Docket Nº:09-166.
Citation:558 U.S. 985, 130 S.Ct. 12, 175 L.Ed.2d 344, 78 U.S.L.W. 3250
Opinion Judge:STEVENS, J.
Party Name:UNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. James Ford SEALE.
Judge Panel:Roberts, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor.
Case Date:November 02, 2009
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 985

558 U.S. 985 (2009)

130 S.Ct. 12, 175 L.Ed.2d 344, 78 U.S.L.W. 3250

UNITED STATES, Petitioner,


James Ford SEALE.

No. 09-166.

United States Supreme Court

November 2, 2009

Roberts, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor.

Statement of JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE SCALIA joins, respecting the dismissal of the certified question.

The question certified by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is dismissed.

This certificate presents us with a pure question of law that may well determine the outcome of a number of cases of ugly racial violence remaining from the 1960s. The question is what statute of limitations applies to a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. §1201 commenced in 2007 for a kidnaping offense that occurred in 1964.

James Ford Seale was found guilty of violating § 1201, a provision that does not include its own limitations period. Title 18 U.S.C. § 3281 provides that "any offense punishable by death" may be prosecuted "at any time without limitation," whereas § 3282(a) imposes a 5-year period of limitations for all other offenses "[e]xcept as otherwise expressly provided by law." In 1964 a violation of § 1201 was a capital offense when the victim was harmed, and since 1994 a violation of § 1201 has been a capital offense when the kidnaping results [130 S.Ct. 13] in the loss of life. But for more than two decades in between, Seale's crime was not punishable by death.

Several developments accounted for this. In 1968 this Court held that the death penalty provision in the old §1201 was unconstitutional because it applied "only to those defendants who assert the right to contest their guilt before a jury," United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570, 581, 88 S.Ct. 1209, 20 L.Ed.2d 138, and in 1972 we cast significant doubt on the constitutionality of death penalty laws nationwide, Fur-man v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (per curiam). Following Furman, Congress repealed the death penalty clause of §1201, see Act for

Page 986

the Protection of Foreign Officials and Official Guests of the United States, Pub. L. 92-539, § 201, 86 Stat. 1072, which had the effect of changing the applicable statute of limitations from § 3281 to § 3282.

In this case, the District Court held that the 1972 repeal did not retroactively change the character of a violation of § 1201 as a...

To continue reading