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Last Best Chance for the Great Writ: Equitable Tolling and Federal Habeas Corpus

By Anne R. Traum


This Article examines an important unsettled question in federal habeas law: whether equitable tolling is available under the statute of limitations applicable to federal habeas petitions filed by state prisoners. The answer to this question will determine access to federal judicial review of thousands of prisoners’ claims that their convictions resulted from violations of their federal constitutional rights in state courts. In twelve cases reviewing the statute of limitations under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), the Supreme Court has curtailed the availability of statutory tolling of the limitations period. Equitable tolling of the statute of limitations represents the last best chance for habeas petitioners who find themselves shut out of federal court by the Supreme Court’s restrictive interpretation of the AEDPA. Without it, their constitutional claims will never be heard. The Supreme Court has twice signaled in recent cases that the availability of equitable tolling under the AEDPA remains unsettled, suggesting that it could reject equitable tolling under the AEDPA. This Article examines the AEDPA’s equitable tolling issue in light of the Court’s meandering equitable tolling jurisprudence and its historical role in habeas corpus. Although lower courts have held that equitable tolling is available under the AEDPA, they have failed to articulate convincingly why equitable tolling is justified in the context of federal habeas corpus. This Article fills the void by examining the Court’s seminal equitable tolling cases, from Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, to its most recent decision in John R. Sand \u26 Gravel Co. v. United States. Three contextual factors influence the Court’s role in applying the statute at issue. Applying these factors to the AEDPA, equitable tolling is justified for institutional, constitutional, and statutory reasons, including the Court’s unique role in ensuring access to the Great Writ and remedying constitutional violations

Topics: habeas corpus, equitable tolling, statute of limitations, Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, AEDPA, Criminal Law
Publisher: Scholarly Commons @ UNLV Law
Year: 2009
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