Whenever someone asks me if it’s a good idea to file a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) to reopen their 2255 motion or other civil proceeding, I cringe. That’s because the district court has such broad discretion in granting or denying these motions. A quick look at appeals from Rule 60(b) denials convinces me that district courts seemingly have “immunity” whenever they deny those motions.
But not always. A district court abuses its discretion when it applies the correct law in an incorrect way. And that’s what happened when a state prisoner filed a Rule 60(b) motion in a federal district court to reopen his habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254, after a change in procedural law that had foreclosed his petition from being heard years ago changed.
In Bynoe v. Warden, No. 17-17012 (9th Cir. July 24, 2020), the Court held that when there is a “clear and authoritative” change in procedural law that prevented a habeas petitioner’s claims from ever being heard, a promptly-filed Rule 60(b) motion after that change in law can allow reopening of that civil case to apply new law. The district court had dismissed the motion, saying it was too late (by several years) and that the change in law wasn’t an “extraordinary circumstance.”
The Court considered the effects of reopening a long-ago closed habeas case, here over seven years ago, and concluded that finality and comity concerns were “minimal” in such a case, especially where the merits of the claims were never reached. “When a habeas petition is dismissed on flawed procedural grounds, there are no past effect of the judgment that would be disturbed if the habeas proceeding were reopened for further consideration,” the Court said. “The parties would simply pick up where they left off,” notwithstanding the several years since the habeas petition was denied.
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