Cite as: 536 U. S. 214 (2002)
would also produce a serious statutory anomaly. Because a federal habeas petitioner has not exhausted his state remedies as long as he has "the right under [state] law . . . to raise" in that State, "by any available procedure, the question presented," § 2254(c), and because petitioner's interpretation encourages state prisoners to file their petitions before the State completes a full round of collateral review, federal courts would have to contend with petitions that are in one sense unlawful (because the claims have not been exhausted) but in another sense required by law (because they would otherwise be barred by the 1-year limitations period). Pp. 219-221.
2. The same "pending" rule applies to California's unique collateral review system, even though that system involves, not a notice of appeal, but the filing (within a "reasonable" time) of a further original state habeas petition in a higher court. California's system is not as special in practice as its terminology might suggest. A prisoner typically will seek habeas review in a lower court and later seek appellate review in a higher court. Thus, the system functions very much like that in other States, but for its indeterminate timeliness rule. That rule may make it more difficult for federal courts to determine when a review application comes too late. But the tolling provision seeks to protect the State's interests, and the State can explicate timing requirements more precisely should that prove necessary. In applying a federal statute that interacts with state procedural rules, this Court looks to how a state procedure functions, not its particular name. California's system functions in ways sufficiently like other state collateral review systems to bring intervals between a lower court decision and a filing in a higher court within the scope of "pending." Pp. 221-225.
3. The words "on the merits" by themselves do not indicate that Saffold's petition was timely, but it is not possible to conclude that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in its ultimate conclusion. The State Supreme Court may have included such words in its opinion for a variety of reasons. And the Ninth Circuit's willingness to take them as an absolute bellwether risks the tolling of the federal limitations period even when it is likely that the state petition was untimely, thus threatening the statutory purpose of encouraging prompt filings in order to protect the federal system from being forced to hear stale claims. In reconsidering the timeliness issue, the Ninth Circuit is left to evaluate any special conditions justifying Saffold's delay in filing in the state court and any other relevant considerations, and to decide whether to certify a question to the State Supreme Court to seek clarification of the state law. Pp. 225-227.
250 F. 3d 1262, vacated and remanded.
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