Rhines v. Weber

PETITIONER:Charles Russell Rhines
RESPONDENT:Douglas Weber, Warden
LOCATION:City of New London Town Hall

DOCKET NO.: 03-9046
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 269 (2005)
GRANTED: Jun 28, 2004
ARGUED: Jan 12, 2005
DECIDED: Mar 30, 2005

Lawrence E. Long – argued the cause for Respondent
Roberto A. Lange – argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

A South Dakota court convicted Charles Rhines of murder. Rhines filed a habeas corpus petition with a federal district court, alleging various violations of his constitutional rights in the trial and conviction. The district court ruled Rhines failed to exhaust all of his claims in state court. The court stayed Rhines’ habeas petition so that Rhines could finish his claims in state court. The stay prevented the one-year statute of limitations in the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act from barring Rhines from appealing to a federal court once he exhausted state remedies. The state penitentiary warden appealed. The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ruled the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision inRose v. Lundy (1982) required the dismissal of a habeas petition that included unexhausted claims.


May a federal court stay a habeas petition that included exhausted and unexhausted claims, when the stay was necessary to allow a petitioner to exhaust claims in state court without having the one-year statute of limitations in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) bar the right to a federal petition?

Media for Rhines v. Weber

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 12, 2005 in Rhines v. Weber

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 30, 2005 in Rhines v. Weber

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in Rhines versus Webber will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

To understand what it is about you have to remember that most criminal cases are heard in State not Federal Courts as a first instance matter, and after a trial if the defendant is found guilty there are appellate review mechanisms in State Courts.

It is possible after all State Court review is finished for a defendant who is still unhappy or unsatisfied with the finding of guilty or the sentence, that defendant can raise federal constitutional issues in Federal Court after the completion of State review.

Now, that is done by filing a writ of habeas corpus in Federal Court, and some years ago this Court has held that it is not correct for a Federal Court to consider and hear petitions by prisoners coming from State Court that combine in their claim both claims that were never heard in State Court as well as claims that have been resolved already in State Court and this involves that situation and the petitioner Charles Rhines, was convicted on South Dakota of first-degree and burglary.

After a state conviction became final and a State habeas petition was denied, he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court.

By that time, the District Court determined that eight of his numerous claims filed in Federal Court had never been exhausted in State Court and there is a federal statute that has been inactive called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act; the acronym, I believe is pronounced AEDPA, and it has a one year statute of limitations for prisoners to file for federal habeas.

So, if the Federal Court had dismissed Rhines’ petition then he would have been unable to refile it after he went back to State Court to exhaust his unexhausted claims.

As a result, the Federal District Court entered a stay of the federal petition and held it in abeyance while he went back to State Court to have the State Courts hear his unexhausted claims and then return to the Federal Court.

Now, the state appeals from that order and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that District Courts do not have authority to grant such a stay, absent exceptional circumstances.

We then accepted the petition for review here and in an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we vacate the Eighth Circuit’s judgment.

We hold that at Federal District Court does have discretion to enter a stay of a petition that contains both exhausted and unexhausted claims to allow the petitioner to present his unexhausted claims to the State Court in the first instance and then to return to the Federal Court for the review of his total petition that has now been perfected.

We think that AEDPA does not deprive District Courts of the authority they ordinarily had the issue stays in cases that are properly before them.

It does however, we think, circumscribe the court’s discretion, because when a stay is entered frustrate AEDPA’s goal of finality by allowing the petitioner to delay the resolution of the federal proceedings.

For these reasons, we hold that a stay and abeyance order in the Federal District Court should be available only in limited circumstances that the District Court should grant a stay at the federal habeas proceedings only if it determines there was good cause for the petitioner’s failure to exhaust his claims first in State Court.

And even if the petitioner has good cause for the failure, the District Court would abuse its discretion if it were to grant a stay when the unexhausted claims are plainly meritless.

And where a stay is appropriate, we also hold that the District Court should impose reasonable time limits for the petitioner to return to the State Courts for review.

Now we do not decide whether the District Court abused its discretion in granting Rhines’ a stay and we leave that to the Court of Appeals on remand.

Justice Stevens has filed a concurring opinion in which Justices Ginsburg and Breyer join; Justice Souter has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment in which Justices Ginsburg and Breyer have joined.