Nahmod Law

New Supreme Court Section 1983, Habeas and Heck Decision: Skinner v. Switzer


I blogged on June 24, 2010, about the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Skinner v. Switzer (PDF), No. 09-9000, a case from the Fifth Circuit addressing the relationship between section 1983, habeas corpus and Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). That post should be consulted for background by those unfamiliar with this case.

On March 7, 2011, the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, handed down its decision in Skinner, with Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, dissenting.

The Opinion

This was the question in Skinner:

“May a convicted state prisoner seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence assert that claim in a civil rights action under [section 1983], or is such a claim cognizable in federal court only when asserted in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus?”

The Court’s answer in Skinner is that section 1983 may be used.

Skinner, convicted of murder and on Death Row, sought access under Texas statutory law to post-conviction DNA testing of crime-scene evidence that might prove him innocent. But he was denied access under the statute because he had not sought such testing in his criminal case. He then sued the District Attorney who had prosecuted him, and who had custody of the evidence, for injunctive relief under section 1983, and alleged that the Texas statute violated procedural due process. (A substantive due process claim was foreclosed by District Atty’s Office v. Osborne, 129 S. Ct. 2308 (2009).)

However, the lower federal courts dismissed on the ground that his remedy was in habeas corpus, not section 1983, because he was seeking ultimately to overturn his conviction and obtain release from prison. The lower federal courts did not reach the merits of Skinner’s procedural due process claim.

The Supreme Court reversed in an opinion by Justice Ginsburg.

The Court pointed out first that Skinner did not allege a substantive due process violation but rather a procedural due process violation, and that the latter issue was not ripe for review since the lower federal courts had not addressed it. Next, Justice Ginsburg observed that Skinner’s lawsuit was not foreclosed by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because he did not challenge the adverse state court decisions themselves but rather the Texas statute they construed.

Finally, Justice Ginsburg had little difficulty in concluding that Heck did not bar the lawsuit. Under Heck, a section 1983 lawsuit is barred only when success would necessarily imply the invalidity of the underlying conviction. That was clearly not the case here: the DNA testing of the crime-scene evidence would not necessarily be exculpatory of Skinner, whose ultimate aim–overturning his conviction–was irrelevant.

In response to the concerns of the dissenters, Justice Ginsburg went on assert that the Court’s decision in Skinner would not result in a proliferation of these kinds of lawsuits: not only would there be no flood of litigation but there would not “even [be] rainfall.” There was no evidence of this in those circuits that allowed post-conviction DNA testing. Also, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 already imposed severe constraints on prisoner litigation. And Osborne had barred the use of substantive due process.

The dissenters, led by Justice Thomas, forthrightly declared that such procedural claims should not be cognizable under section 1983 but rather should be brought under habeas corpus because such claims were intended to overturn convictions. In their view it was too easy to prisoners to use procedural due process as an end-run around the substantive due process holding of Osborne. They consequently expected to see a significant increase in such section 1983 claims in the future.


1. The Court, including Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts who might be expected to be unsympathetic to such prisoner litigation, was clearly constrained by the explicit holding in Heck to the effect that section 1983 may be used unless success will necessarily imply the invalidity of an underlying conviction. Indeed, Justice Scalia wrote Heck. The justices really had no choice in the matter if they were to adhere to precedent.

2. There will likely be a short-term increase in such section 1983 claims based on procedural due process, at least in those states that already provide for post-conviction DNA testing. Almost certainly the merits of such claims will eventually reach the Supreme Court.

3. In contrast, lawsuits seeking post-conviction DNA testing under substantive due process may not be brought in light of Osborne, decided in 2009.

Written by snahmod

March 11, 2011 at 12:05 pm

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