The Effect of United States Supreme Court Dicta

Coleman v. Superintendent Greene SCI, 845 F.3d 73 (3d Cir. 2017).  Today, Judge Hardiman, writing for the Third Circuit in a habeas corpus case, addressed the weight to be given to dicta from the Supreme Court of the United States.  Lawyers all learn the difference between a holding, the actual rule of decision in a case, and dicta, which (as Judge Hardiman put it, quoting a prior Thrid Circuit case) is “a statement in a judicial opinion that could have been deleted without seriously impairing the analytical foundations of the holding.”  Judge Hardiman devoted a footnote to the question of the weight of Supreme Court dicta, a footnote that itself is dicta.

Appellant Coleman had been convicted of murder, aggravated assault, and other crimes in Pennsylvania state court.  He brought a habeas corpus petition at a time well outside the one-year period that the federal Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) permits for habeas petitions.  Coleman argued, however, that a “fundamental miscarriage of justice” exception that the Supreme Court of the United States had applied in two cases allowed him to get around the limitations period.  Those two cases noted a requirement of “actual innocence” before the “fundamental miscarrriage of justice” exception could apply.  Coleman admittedly could not claim actual innocence.  But he contended that the “actual innocence” language was mere dicta, and that the courts could find his habeas petition timely.

Judge Hardiman did not agree.  After a careful discussion of the two Supreme Court cases, he found that “the actual innocence requirement was essential to the Court’s holding.”

In a footnote, Judge Hardiman went on to say that the result would be the same even if the “actual innocence” language were dicta.  Quoting two prior Third Circuit cases, he said that “we [will] not idly ignore considered statements the Supreme Court makes in dicta.  To ignore what we perceive as persuasive statements by the Supreme Court is to place our rulings, and the analysis that underlays them, in peril.  So even if we found the Court’s analysis of the actual innocence requirement to be dicta, we would reach the same result.”

The footntote about dicta was unnecesary to the decision, which rested on the holding that actual innocence is a prerequisite to the “fundamental miscarriage of justice” exception to the habeas statute of limitations contained in the AEDPA.  But that dicta commands respect, without being binding.  (The difference is discussed, among other places, here).