Johnson v. United States

PETITIONER: Robert Johnson, Jr.
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Texas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 03-9685
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 295 (2005)
GRANTED: Sep 28, 2004
ARGUED: Jan 18, 2005
DECIDED: Apr 04, 2005

Courtland L. Reichman - argued the cause for Petitioner
Dan Himmelfarb - argued the cause for Respondent
Donald F. Samuel - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
Michael Kennedy McIntyre - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging reversal

Facts of the case

In 1998 a Georgia court reversed all of Johnson's seven prior convictions. One of these had been the basis for the enhanced federal sentence Johnson had received in 1994. In light of the reversals, Johnson filed a motion to vacate his enhanced federal sentence. Federal law, however, set out a one-year statute of limitations on motions by prisoners seeking to modify their sentences. That one-year period ran from the latest of four dates, the last of which was "the date on which the facts supporting the claim...could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence." Johnson argued his motion was timely because the reversals constituted previously undiscoverable "facts supporting the claim" and thus triggered a renewed limitation period. The district court and the 11th Circuit denied Johnson's motion as untimely.


Is the vacating of a state conviction a "fact" as that term is used in the federal law setting out a statute of limitations on federal sentence modification motions, thus commencing the statute's 1-year limitations period?

Media for Johnson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 18, 2005 in Johnson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 04, 2005 in Johnson v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in Johnson against United States will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

I am announcing this on behalf of Justice Souter, the author of the majority but without his distinctive New England accent.

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Petitions for writ of habeas corpus filed in Federal Court are governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1966 known as AEDPA, which imposes a one-year statute of limitations on petitions filed by prisoners who seek to modify or vacate their federal sentences.

For purposes of this case, the one-year time clock runs from the date on which the facts supporting the federal prisoners claim could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.

The petitioner, Robert Johnson, Jr. received an enhanced federal sentence because he had two prior convictions in the State of Georgia.

Johnson later petitioned for writ of habeas corpus in the Georgia State Court claiming that the guilty pleas he entered in seven cases including one the Federal Court had used to enhanced his federal sentence were invalid because he had not knowingly intelligently and voluntarily waived his right to counsel.

The State Court agreed with Johnson and entered an order vacating all seven of Johnson’s State Court convictions.

A little over three months later, Johnson returned to the Federal District Court with a motion to vacate his enhanced federal sentence on the ground that one of the predicate convictions supporting the enhancement had now been vacated.

Johnson claimed this motion was filed in time because the State Court’s vacator was a new fact triggering the one-year limitation period.

The District Court disagreed and denied it as did the Eleventh Circuit.

In an opinion file today with the Clerk of the Court, we affirm the judgment though not the reasoning of the Eleventh Circuit.

Subject to exceptions not relevant here, this Court has held in two previous cases that a prisoner facing a federal sentencing enhancement may not litigate in Federal Court the validity of a prior state conviction unless he first goes back to the State Courts to obtain an order vacating that prior conviction.

Because the State Court vacator is a necessary pre-condition to obtaining relief in Federal Court, we agree with Johnson that the vacator is a matter of fact within the meaning of the statute of limitation rule and that the one year period therefore may run form the date the prisoner receives notice of that State Court order.

The vacator of a conviction may be spoken of as a matter of fact just as sensibly as the conviction itself and is subject to proof or disproof just like any other factual issue.

Nevertheless, we do not accept Johnson's view in its entirety because he overlooks the fact that the AEDPA statute of limitations requires a petitioner to exercise due diligence in discovering the facts supporting his challenge to the federal sentence.

We hold that notice of the State Court order vacating a prior conviction will only trigger a full one-year limitation period if the petitioner acted with due diligence in seeking that vacator after the Federal Court enters judgment in the case with the sentence enhancement.

A different rule would be inconsistent with the statutory text and with AEDPA’s basic purpose of promoting the finality of Federal Judgments.

In this case, Johnson was obliged after the District Court entered its judgment in the Federal Criminal case to act diligently to obtain the State Court order vacating his prior conviction.

Had he done so, the one year limitation period would have run from the date he received that notice of that vacator.

However, Johnson failed to attack that prior conviction for more than three years after the entry of the judgment in his federal case.

Johnson offers no acceptable excuse for this unreasonable delay.

Johnson’s motion to vacate the federal sentence was therefore properly dismissed as untimely.

Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion which Justices Stevens, Scalia, and Ginsburg have joined.