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Cancel the Subscription: SCOTUS is Over Sua Sponte Issues?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 24, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Colorado inmate is heading back to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to challenge his murder conviction 25 years after a court convicted him.

Patrick Wood was convicted of murdering a pizza shop assistant manager and other crimes in 1987. In 2008, he filed a federal habeas petition. Though the government never argued that Wood’s petition was untimely, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals raised the issue sua sponte and rejected Wood's petition as time-barred.

So are the Nine over sua sponte issues?

Not entirely. Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that courts of appeals, like district courts, have the authority -- though not the obligation -- to raise a forfeited timeliness defense sua sponte in exceptional cases, but that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals abused its discretion when it "resurrected" the timeliness issue after the state deliberately waived its limitations defense.

Justice Ginsburg, writing for the 7-2 majority, noted that Colorado had twice addressed the statute of limitations before the district court, stating that it would "not challenge, but [was] not conceding," the timeliness of Wood's petition. While a court may have discretion to raise an issue sua sponte, the Supreme Court said that it cannot dismiss a petition solely based on timeliness after the state did not object, reports The Huffington Post.

Colorado, after expressing its clear and accurate understanding of the timeliness issue, did not contest the timeliness of Wood's petition. "In short," Justice Ginsburg wrote, "the State knew it had an 'arguable' statute of limitations defense ... yet it chose, in no uncertain terms, to refrain from interposing a timeliness 'challenge' to Wood's petition."

The district court accepted that decision, and considered the merits of Wood's petition. The Tenth Circuit -- according to Justice Ginsburg -- should have done the same, instead of raising timeliness sua sponte.

While the justices unanimously agreed that the Tenth Circuit should be reversed, they disagreed on the basis for reversal. Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined, stating that they could not join the court's holding that a court of appeals "has discretion to consider sua sponte a forfeited limitations defense," reports Courthouse News Service.

Patrick Wood's appeal will now return to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Denver-based court will consider the merits of Wood's petition.

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