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Williams v. Robert

January 8, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Phil Gilbert District Judge


This matter comes before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("Report") (Doc. 13) of Magistrate Judge Philip M. Frazier recommending that the Court dismiss petitioner Leslie L. Williams's petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on the grounds that Williams procedurally defaulted his claims.

I. Report and Recommendation Review Standard

After reviewing a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the Court may accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations of the magistrate judge in the report. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). The Court must review de novo the portions of the report to which objections are made. Id. "If no objection or only partial objection is made, the district court judge reviews those unobjected portions for clear error." Johnson v. Zema Systems Corp., 170 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 1999).

II. Report and Objection

Williams is currently serving a 40-year state court sentence for murder. During his incarceration, the prison's adjustment committee revoked one year of his good time credit. Williams grieved the revocation, but his grievance was denied. He then filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the Illinois circuit court, which was converted to a declaratory judgment action.

The circuit court dismissed his action on January 4, 2007, and Williams did not file a timely appeal. In the Report, Magistrate Judge Frazier found that Williams had procedurally defaulted his claim because he failed to comply with the state procedural rule requiring him to file a notice of appeal within 30 days of judgment. He further found that Williams had not established cause and prejudice or a fundamental miscarriage of justice that would excuse his procedural default. Accordingly, the Report recommends the Court dismiss Williams's § 2254 petition on the grounds of procedural default.

Williams objects to the Report, arguing that he had good cause for failing to appeal the denial of his state court action: the circuit court did not notify him of the dismissal until his appeal period had passed. Indeed, on January 3, 2007, the circuit court received a letter from Williams informing it that he had been transferred to another prison. Despite this notification, the Clerk of Court waited until February 9, 2007, to mail the order of dismissal to Williams, and when it did so, it mailed it to the wrong institution. The order was forwarded to Williams, who finally received it on February 26, 2007, beyond the 30-day appeal period. See Ill. Sup. Ct. R. 606(b). Williams promptly asked the circuit court to allow him to file a late appeal pursuant to Ill. S.Ct. R. 606(c), but the court denied that request noting it did not have jurisdiction to hear a late appeal. The Illinois Supreme Court similarly denied Williams leave to appeal.

III. Analysis

In federal habeas litigation under § 2254, the Court must decide whether the petitioner is "in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). However, as a matter of comity and federalism, federal court "will not review a question of federal law decided by a state court if the decision of that court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment."

Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991). This is often referred to as the "independent and adequate state ground doctrine" and bars federal habeas review "when a state court declined to address a prisoner's federal claims because the prisoner had failed to meet a state procedural requirement." Id. at 729-30. If a federal habeas court were to release a prisoner (or give him back his good time credit, as the case may be) where there is a valid state law basis for holding him (or revoking his good time credit), it would render that state law inapplicable, an untenable result. Id. at 730-31.

The independent and adequate state ground doctrine comes into play where a petitioner has procedurally defaulted his federal claims in state court by failing to raise them properly, has no further state remedies available to him and therefore has technically exhausted his state remedies. Id. at 731-32. Rejection of the petitioner's habeas claims on the basis of an independent and adequate state ground (e.g., procedural default in state court) prevents the petitioner from doing an end-run around the exhaustion requirement of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A) and assures that, as a matter of comity and federalism, state courts have an opportunity to correct their own mistakes before federal courts are asked to step in. Id. at 732.

To determine if there is an independent and adequate state ground for the state court's resolution of the issue, the habeas court looks to the decision of the last state court to which the petitioner presented his federal claims. If that decision "fairly appeared to rest primarily on resolution of those claims, or to be interwoven with those claims, and did not clearly and expressly rely on an independent and adequate state ground," the habeas court presumes there was no independent and adequate state ground for the state's decision and can address the petition. Id. at 735; Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 266 (1989). Otherwise, the independent and adequate state ground will preclude habeas review. Coleman, 501 U.S. at 740.

In Coleman, the Supreme Court considered a case where a ยง 2254 petitioner challenging his state conviction had filed a late notice of appeal of the denial of his state post-conviction petition. Id. at 727. The state supreme court heard arguments on the merits of the petitioner's constitutional claims but ultimately dismissed them pursuant to the state's request for dismissal based on the late notice of appeal, giving no indication in the order of dismissal that the court was relying on federal grounds. Id. at 727-28. The Supreme Court held that since the order of dismissal ...

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