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District courts do ordinarily have authority to issue stays where such a stay would be a proper exercise of discretion. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act does not deprive district courts of that authority, but it does circumscribe their discretion.
Accused was convicted in a South Dakota court on charges including first-degree murder. In 2000, the accused filed a then-timely federal habeas corpus petition in the district court. However, after Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)'s limitations period had run, the district court held that some of the accused's claims had not been exhausted. The accused therefore moved the district court to hold his pending federal habeas corpus petition in abeyance, while he presented his unexhausted claims to the South Dakota courts. The district court granted the motion, and issued a stay conditioned upon the accused's commencing state-court exhaustion proceedings. The court of appeals vacated the stay and expressed the view that a court of appeals precedent precluded the district court from staying the accused's exhausted claims while he sought state postconviction relief on unexhausted claims.
Did the lower court err to the extent it concluded that stay and abeyance were always impermissible?
Although the AEDPA did not deprive district courts of the authority to issue stays, it did circumscribe their discretion. Thus, any solution to the limitations problem faced by habeas petitioners in cases involving exhausted and unexhausted claims had to be consistent with the AEDPA's purposes. Stay and abeyance was only available when the district court determined that there was good cause for a petitioner's failure to exhaust his claims first in state court because granting a stay effectively excused a petitioner's failure to present the claims first in state court. Even if a petitioner had good cause for the failure, a district court abused its discretion if it granted a stay when the unexhausted claims were plainly meritless. Moreover, even where stay and abeyance was appropriate, district courts were required to place reasonable time limits on a petitioner's trip to state court and back. If a petitioner engaged in abusive litigation tactics or intentional delay, the district court should not grant a stay at all.