Lonchar v. Thomas, 955015

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBreyer
Citation116 S.Ct. 1293,517 U.S. 314,134 L.Ed.2d 440
PartiesLONCHAR v. THOMAS, WARDEN Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Docket Number955015
Decision Date01 April 1996

517 U.S. 314
116 S.Ct. 1293
134 L.Ed.2d 440
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
LONCHAR

v.

THOMAS, WARDEN

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
No. 95-5015.
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued December 4, 1995
Decided April 1, 1996
Syllabus *

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. Court for Northern Dist of Cal., 503 U. S. 653. Setting aside the Rules and traditional habeas doctrines, the court concluded that Lonchar did not merit equitable relief.

Held:

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. 4-7.

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, 479-489. 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. ___, ___ (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 bCourt 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 filing this federal habeas petition was in part to delay his execution. The Court expresses no view about the proper outcome of the Rules' application in this case. Pp. 7-18. 58 F. 3d 590, vacated and remanded.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, O'Connor, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Rehnquist, C. J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case asks us to decide whether a federal court may dismiss a first federal habeas petition for general "equitable" reasons beyond those embodied in the relevant statutes, Federal Habeas Corpus Rules, and prior precedents. We decide that the Court of Appeals erred in doing so in this case. The primary "equitable" consideration favoring dismissal of the "eleventh hour" petition before us is serious delay. A Federal Habeas Corpus Rule deals specifically with delay. See 28 U. S. C. Section(s) 2254 Rule 9(a) (permitting courts to dismiss a habeas petition when "it appears that the state . . . has been prejudiced in its ability to respond . . . by delay in its filing"). And, in our view, this Rule, not some general "equitable" power to create exceptions to the Rule, should have determined whether or not the petition's dismissal was appropriate.

I

Petitioner Larry Lonchar was sentenced to death for murder nine years ago. He filed this "eleventh hour" petition for habeas corpus-his first federal habeas corpus petition-on June 28, 1995, the day of his scheduled execution. To understand the procedural significance of this petition, the nature of the delay here at issue, and other relevant special features of this case, we must consider the petition in the context of earlier proceedings, which, for ease of exposition, we divide into five stages: Stage One: Trial, Appeal, Execution Date: 1987-1990. In 1987, Lonchar was convicted in state court for murdering three people and sentenced to death by electrocution. A mandatory state court appeal led to affirmance of the conviction and sentence in 1988. The trial judge then issued a death warrant for the week of March 23, 1990. Throughout these proceedings Lonchar said he wanted to die and refused to cooperate with his lawyer or to attend his trial. He also attempted (unsuccessfully) to waive his mandatory appeal, declined to authorize any collateral attacks on his conviction or sentence, and wrote the trial judge asking for an execution date.

Stage Two: Sister's "Next Friend" Habeas: March 1990- February 1993. Two days before the scheduled execution, Lonchar's sister, Chris Kellog, filed a "next friend" habeas petition in state court, claiming Lonchar was incompetent. Lonchar opposed the action and eventually the state and federal courts, at trial and appellate levels, held that Lonchar was competent and dismissed the petition. The state courts again issued a death warrant, this time for the week of February 24, 1993.

Stage Three: Lonchar's own State Habeas: February 1993-May 1995. After Lonchar's lawyer told him that his brother, Milan, was threatening to kill himself because of Lonchar's execution, Lonchar authorized a habeas petition in state court and obtained a stay of execution. He subsequently changed his mind and told the judge he did not want to proceed. Although his lawyers objected that Lonchar was incompetent to make this decision, the judge dismissed the petition without prejudice. A death warrant was issued for the week of June 23, 1995.

Stage Four: Brother's "Next Friend" Habeas: June 20- June 23, 1995. Three days before the scheduled execution, Lonchar's brother, Milan, filed another "next friend" habeas petition in state court. Lonchar again opposed it. Within three days, Milan's petition met the same fate as his sister's earlier petition. That is to say, federal and state courts, at trial and appellate levels, all found Lonchar competent and denied the petition.

Stage Five: Lonchar's Current Habeas: June 23, 1995-Present. Immediately thereafter, after discussions with his lawyers, Lonchar filed another state habeas petition containing 22 claims, including one that challenged the method of execution. He told the state court judge that he wished to pursue...

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637 practice notes
  • Graham v. Johnson, No. 99-20014
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • February 25, 1999
    ...U.S. 827, 837, 110 S.Ct. 1570, 108 L.Ed.2d 842 (1990) ("[W]here the congressional intent is clear, it governs."); cf. Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314, 328, 116 S.Ct. 1293, 134 L.Ed.2d 440 (1996) (criticizing, in a pre-AEDPA regime, the practice of amending a Federal Habeas Corpus Rule "thro......
  • Franklin v. Francis, No. C1-98-0136.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • February 27, 1998
    ...the protections of the Great Writ entirely, risking Page 933 injury to an important interest in human liberty. Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314, 116 S.Ct. 1293, 1299, 134 L.Ed.2d 440 (1996); see also, Cone v. Bell, 956 F.Supp. 1401, 1404 (W.D.Tenn.1997) ([In Lonchar,] the Supreme Court impli......
  • Masterson v. Thaler, CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:09-CV-2731
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Texas
    • February 28, 2014
    ...for state prisoners filing federal habeas petitions." Fisher v. Johnson, 174 F.3d 710, 711 (5th Cir. 1999) (citing Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314, 327 (1996)); see also Cantu-Tzin v. Johnson, 162 F.3d 295, 298 (5th Cir. 1998). Inmates generally must file the constitutional claims one year ......
  • JSJ Ltd. P'ship v. Mehrban, No. B234236.
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 17, 2012
    ...The United States Supreme Court has referred to the doctrine of res judicata as being a “procedural” one. ( Lonchar v. Thomas (1996) 517 U.S. 314, 322, 116 S.Ct. 1293, 134 L.Ed.2d 440; see also Longo v. Globe Auto Recycling (2001) 318 Ill.App.3d 1028, 252 Ill.Dec. 799, 743 N.E.2d 667, 675 [......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
636 cases
  • Graham v. Johnson, No. 99-20014
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • February 25, 1999
    ...U.S. 827, 837, 110 S.Ct. 1570, 108 L.Ed.2d 842 (1990) ("[W]here the congressional intent is clear, it governs."); cf. Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314, 328, 116 S.Ct. 1293, 134 L.Ed.2d 440 (1996) (criticizing, in a pre-AEDPA regime, the practice of amending a Federal Habeas Corpus Rule "thro......
  • Franklin v. Francis, No. C1-98-0136.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • February 27, 1998
    ...the protections of the Great Writ entirely, risking Page 933 injury to an important interest in human liberty. Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314, 116 S.Ct. 1293, 1299, 134 L.Ed.2d 440 (1996); see also, Cone v. Bell, 956 F.Supp. 1401, 1404 (W.D.Tenn.1997) ([In Lonchar,] the Supreme Court impli......
  • Masterson v. Thaler, CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:09-CV-2731
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Texas
    • February 28, 2014
    ...for state prisoners filing federal habeas petitions." Fisher v. Johnson, 174 F.3d 710, 711 (5th Cir. 1999) (citing Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314, 327 (1996)); see also Cantu-Tzin v. Johnson, 162 F.3d 295, 298 (5th Cir. 1998). Inmates generally must file the constitutional claims one year ......
  • JSJ Ltd. P'ship v. Mehrban, No. B234236.
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 17, 2012
    ...The United States Supreme Court has referred to the doctrine of res judicata as being a “procedural” one. ( Lonchar v. Thomas (1996) 517 U.S. 314, 322, 116 S.Ct. 1293, 134 L.Ed.2d 440; see also Longo v. Globe Auto Recycling (2001) 318 Ill.App.3d 1028, 252 Ill.Dec. 799, 743 N.E.2d 667, 675 [......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • December 1, 2014
    ...(2007)Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764 (1990)Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978)Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364 (1993)Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314 (1996)(continued)338 International Criminal Justice Review Table A1. (continued)Loving v. United States, 517 U.S. 748 (1996)Lowenfield v. P......

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