Carey v. Saffold, 536 U.S. 214, 13 (2002)

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Opinion of the Court

sion; or where the court wishes to show a prisoner (who may not have a lawyer) that it was not merely a procedural technicality that precluded him from obtaining relief. Given the variety of reasons why the California Supreme Court may have included the words "on the merits," those words cannot by themselves indicate that the petition was timely. And the Ninth Circuit's apparent willingness to take such words as an absolute bellwether risks the tolling of the federal limitations period even when it is highly likely that the prisoner failed to seek timely review in the state appellate courts. See, e. g., Welch v. Newland, 267 F. 3d 1013 (CA9 2001) (finding limitations period tolled during 4-year gap). The Ninth Circuit's rule consequently threatens to undermine the statutory purpose of encouraging prompt filings in federal court in order to protect the federal system from being forced to hear stale claims. See Duncan, 533 U. S., at 179.

If the California Supreme Court had clearly ruled that Saffold's 41/2-month delay was "unreasonable," that would be the end of the matter, regardless of whether it also addressed the merits of the claim, or whether its timeliness ruling was "entangled" with the merits. 250 F. 3d, at 1267. We cannot say in this case, however, that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in its ultimate conclusion. Saffold argues that special circumstances were present here: He was not notified of the Court of Appeal's decision for several months, and he filed within days after receiving notification. And he contends it is more likely that the phrase "lack of diligence" referred to the delay between the date his conviction became final and the date he first sought state postconviction relief—a matter irrelevant to the question whether his application was "pending" during the 41/2-month interval. We leave it to the Court of Appeals to evaluate these and any other relevant considerations in the first instance. We also leave to the Court of Appeals the decision whether it would be appropriate to certify a question to the California Supreme Court

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