Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314 (1996)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit

No. 95-5015. Argued December 4, 1995—Decided April 1, 1996

Petitioner Lonchar was sentenced to death for murder nine years ago. In the years following the affirmance of his conviction and sentence, his sister and brother each filed "next friend" state habeas petitions, which Lonchar opposed, and Lonchar filed, and then had dismissed, a state habeas petition. Shortly before his scheduled execution, he filed another state habeas petition. When it was denied, he filed this "eleventh hour" federal petition, his first. Reasoning that federal Habeas Corpus Rule 9, not some generalized equitable authority to dismiss, governed the case, the District Court held that Lonchar's conduct in waiting almost six 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 of Appeals vacated the stay. It held that equitable doctrines independent of Rule 9 applied, relying chiefly on this Court's per curiam order in Gomez v. United States Dist. Court for Northern Dist of Cal., 503 U. S. 653. Setting aside the Rules and traditional habeas doctrines, the court concluded that Lonchar did not merit equitable relief.

Held: 1. The principle of Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U. S. 880, applies when a district court is faced with a request for a stay in a first federal habeas case: If the district court cannot dismiss the petition on the merits before the scheduled execution, it is obligated to address the merits and must issue a stay to prevent the case from becoming moot. If the court lacks authority to directly dispose of the petition on the merits, it would abuse its discretion by attempting to achieve the same result indirectly by denying a stay. Since Lonchar's claims certainly seem substantial enough to prevent dismissal under Habeas Corpus Rule 4 and the State does not argue to the contrary, the courts below correctly assumed that he could not be denied a stay unless his petition was properly subject to dismissal. This Court's Gomez order has not displaced Barefoot's rationale with one permitting denial of a stay in first federal habeas cases, even when the district court lacks authority to dismiss the petition on the merits. Gomez did not involve a denial of a stay in a case in which the lower court had no authority to dismiss the petition or a

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