By Darren Chaker
The Supreme Court decided Skinner v. Switzer, 131 S. Ct. 1289, where a statute or rule governing a state-court decision may be challenged in a federal action as long as review of a ruling in a particular case is not sought. Appellant was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Texas. Following his conviction, Texas enacted Article 64 which allows for postconviction DNA testing in limited circumstances. Skinner twice filed motions in state court for DNA testing of yet untested biological evidence, and both were denied, with denial affirmed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He then filed the instant federal action for injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, a civil statute. The lower federal courts affirmed the Texas court rulings but the Supreme Court reversed and remanded. Although a state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts, a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action. Because Skinner's federal case fell within the second category, there was no lack of subject-matter jurisdiction over his federal suit.
If plaintiff's action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of his conviction or sentence, the suit can be brought in a civil rights action under 42U.S.C. section 1983. A state prisoner complaining of unconstitutional state action can proceed only under a habeas action (28 U.S.C. section 2254) when the action seeks immediate or speedier release from confinement. When success of the claim does not necessarily imply invalidity of the conviction, the suit may be brought under section 1983. Here, success in his suit for DNA testing would not necessarily imply validity of Skinner's conviction. The outcome of test results was not inevitable; it might prove exculpatory, but equally could be inconclusive or further incriminate Skinner. Thus, action under section 1983 was proper.