Lonchar v. Thomas

LOCATION: Eastern District Court of Michigan

DOCKET NO.: 95-5015
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 517 US 314 (1996)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 1995
DECIDED: Apr 01, 1996

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Mary Beth Westmoreland - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Larry Grant Lonchar was sentenced to death for murder nine years ago. After the affirmance of Lonchar's conviction and sentence, his sister and brother filed "next friend" state habeas corpus petitions. Lonchar opposed both. Lonchar then filed a state habeas corpus petition, which was dismissed. Shortly before Lonchar's scheduled execution, he filed another state habeas corpus petition. When the petition was denied, Lonchar filed an "eleventh hour" federal petition, his first, on the day of his scheduled execution. The District Court held that Lonchar's conduct in waiting almost nine 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 had reasoned that federal Habeas Corpus Rule 9, not some generalized equitable authority to dismiss, governed the case. The Court of Appeals vacated the stay. Setting aside the Rules and traditional habeas doctrine, the court held that equitable doctrines independent of Rule 9 applied and it concluded that Lonchar did not merit equitable relief.


May a federal court dismiss a first federal habeas petition for general "equitable" reasons beyond those embodied in the federal Habeas Corpus Rules?

Media for Lonchar v. Thomas

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 04, 1995 in Lonchar v. Thomas

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Number 95-5015, Larry Lonchar v. Albert Thomas.

Mr. Verrilli.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case is about the standards that govern a Federal court's decision whether to entertain a first Federal habeas corpus petition.

The issue arises in an anomalous factual context.

The record is clear that petitioner Larry Lonchar, though found competent, is a deeply disturbed person with suicidal impulses.

That mental illness led him to resist efforts by his siblings to challenge his conviction and death sentence in next friend habeas corpus proceedings.

He has not been entirely consistent, however.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, are you suggesting that one would have to be mentally ill in order to resist efforts to challenge the appeal, to appeal your case?

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.:

Not in every instance, Mr. Chief Justice, but in this instance, yes.

His mental illness is one that produces and has been documented as producing serious suicidal impulses and that, we think, is the principal reason, and the record shows it's the principal reason that it's led to his resistance of those efforts.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Verrilli, do we take this case on the assumption, as the... I guess it's the Eleventh Circuit found, that the petitioner is seeking Federal habeas for purposes of delaying his execution and not to vindicate any constitutional right he might have?

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.:

There is a factual finding to that effect--

To that effect.

--Justice O'Connor, yes.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And so do we take the case on that assumption?

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.:

No, Justice O'Connor.

In our--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And why not?

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.:

--In our view, Justice O'Connor, the record shows that the district court found both that Lonchar seeks, genuinely seeks to pursue these claims, and that his motive for doing so is solely to achieve delay.

In our view, those are irreconcilable.

However, it should not matter as a matter of law, even if the Court does take the case with that finding unchanged, because our position is that Lonchar's motivation, subjective motivation for filing a first Federal habeas petition should be irrelevant as a matter of law.

It should not be the subject of inquiry in this case, as it is not in civil litigation generally.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, I suppose, though, that you do acknowledge that habeas is an equitable remedy.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.:

We do, Justice O'Connor, yes.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And are we limited to what Rule 9 provides in that regard as to delay in filing, or could conceivably equitable considerations allow a Federal court to deny even a first Federal habeas?

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.:

Justice O'Connor, I think there are two separate issues woven together there, and if you'll permit me--

Sandra Day O'Connor:


Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.:

--let me to try to separate them.

Sandra Day O'Connor: