Certiorari Granted in Skinner v. Switzer: Section 1983, Habeas and Heck
The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Skinner v. Switzer, 2010 WL 338018 (Fifth Cir. 2010), cert granted, 130 S. Ct – (May 24, 2010), to deal with the following Question Presented:
May a convicted prisoner seeking access to biological evidence for DNA testing assert that claim in a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or is such a claim cognizable only in a petition for writ of habeas corpus?
In the words of the petitioner, Skinner involves the following:
For ten years, Henry W. Skinner has sought access to DNA testing that could prove him innocent of the murders that landed him on Death Row. After the Texas courts arbitrarily turned back his diligent attempts to take advantage of state statutes affording such relief, he sued in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to vindicate his due process right to “‘fundamental fairness in [the] operation’” of Texas’s scheme. Dist. Atty’s Office v. Osborne, 129 S. Ct. 2308, 2320 (2009)(citation omitted). The district court dismissed Mr. Skinner’s § 1983 suit solely on the ground that his claim sounded only in habeas corpus, and the Fifth Circuit summarily affirmed. The question presented is the same one the Court granted certiorari in Osborne to decide, but left unresolved.
Background and Issues
Generally speaking, federal habeas corpus, which requires exhaustion of state judicial remedies, is used by a litigant when challenging the fact or duration of confinement. 28 U.S.C. sec. 2254. In contrast, section 1983 is used by a litigant when challenging conditions of confinement. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973). This distinction between the fact or duration of confinement and conditions of confinement is not always clear-cut in individual cases but it must be addressed whenever a litigant is or has been confined or imprisoned and wishes to proceed through section 1983.
Adding to the complexity is the Supreme Court’s decision in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), which effectively extended the exhaustion principle beyond section 1983 prospective relief actions to include section 1983 damages actions which, if successful, would necessarily implicate the validity of an existing conviction. In such cases, the litigant’s section 1983 damages action does not accrue until the plaintiff’s conviction is overturned.
In the Osborne case, the Supreme Court did not answer the question whether Heck barred a plaintiff’s section 1983 claim alleging that he had a due process right to obtain postconviction access to the state’s evidence for DNA testing. Instead, the Court assumed that Heck did not bar the claim but nevertheless went on in Osborne to rule against the plaintiff on the due process merits.
Skinner now presents the Court with the opportunity to address the threshold issue in such DNA cases: must the plaintiff proceed under federal habeas corpus, or is section 1983 available? And if section 1983 is theoretically available, is the claim still barred under Heck because, if it is successful, it may undermine the existing conviction? Or, may the section 1983 claim still go forward under Heck because the DNA evidence will not necessarily call the existing conviction into question? After all, such evidence may turn out to be inconclusive or even incriminating.
These questions are of considerable practical significance given the increasing number of highly publicized instances in which individuals have been exonerated by DNA evidence after serving lengthy sentences for crimes they did not commit.