Access to Justice

Reed v. Goertz

In Reed v. Goertz, the Supreme Court is considering when the statute of limitations for a Section 1983 claim challenging the adequacy of state procedures for seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence begins to run.

Case Summary

Rodney Reed has been on death row in Texas since 1998 for a crime he claims he did not commit. Maintaining his innocence, Reed has repeatedly sought relief in Texas state courts over the last two decades. In 2014, Reed moved in state court for DNA testing of crime-scene evidence under a Texas law called Article 64, but the trial court denied his request. Reed appealed, and in 2017, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a final order affirming the trial court’s denial of DNA testing and denying rehearing.

Reed then filed suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C § 1983, claiming that Article 64, as interpreted and applied by the Texas courts, violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process. The federal district court dismissed Reed’s case and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that Reed’s Section 1983 claim was time-barred. According to the Fifth Circuit, the statute of limitations began to run in 2014, the moment the state trial court denied his request for DNA testing. Arguing that the statute of limitations could not possibly start running until the end of the appeals process in 2017, Reed filed a petition for certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision.

CAC filed an amicus brief in support of the certiorari petition, urging the Court to grant the petition and reverse the lower court’s decision. In April 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

On July 8, 2022, CAC filed an amicus brief in support of Reed on the merits of the case. Our brief explains that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was enacted during the Reconstruction era as part of a landmark civil rights law, and it was meant to deter constitutional violations by state and local officials by providing victims with a federal remedy. Consistent with that history, the Supreme Court has long held that the rules governing Section 1983 claims brought for the deprivation of constitutional rights should be tailored to the interests protected by the particular right in question. Specifically, for rules of accrual, the Supreme Court has instructed that the analysis of a Section 1983 claim should begin by identifying the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed. However, the lower court ignored this precedent by failing to tailor its accrual analysis to the constitutional right at stake—the right to procedural due process.

Our brief then goes on to explain that the lower court’s failure to tailor its analysis in this manner was critical to its erroneous decision that Reed’s claim was time-barred. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly explained, procedural due process rules protect persons not from the deprivation of life, liberty, or property, but from the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without adequate process. Thus, if the court had tailored its accrual analysis to the nature of the right to procedural due process, it would have recognized that Reed could not have asserted that the process for seeking DNA testing under state law was inadequate until his request for that testing had been fully adjudicated by the state courts. In other words, because the lower court did not tailor its accrual analysis to Reed’s specific constitutional claim, the court erroneously focused on the initial denial of Reed’s asserted right to DNA testing instead of focusing on the point at which the finality of that denial definitively deprived him of liberty without due process of law. The lower court’s decision, therefore, prevents Section 1983 from serving its purpose because, by the time plaintiffs like Reed know their federal constitutional rights have been violated, it is too late for them to go to federal court.

Finally, our brief argues that the rule created by the lower court not only frustrates individuals’ ability to vindicate constitutional rights, but also runs counter to core principles of comity and federalism. Under the rule of the Fifth Circuit, individuals alleging that state laws unconstitutionally deny access to DNA testing are required to initiate parallel federal court litigation before they even know whether they will prevail in the state process. This rule thus forces federal courts to decide constitutional issues that they may never need to reach. Furthermore, federal courts are not in a position to adjudicate denial-of-procedural-due-process claims if the challenged process has not run its course.

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