Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in Wilson v. Sellers, covered earlier here. The Court splits 6-3 over the proper standard for assessing unexplained state court decisions in the context of federal habeas proceedings. Justice Breyer writes the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Gorsuch writes a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito.
Justice Breyer’s majority opinion begins:
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) requires a prisoner who challenges (in a federal habeas court) a matter “adjudicated on the merits in State court” to show that the relevant state-court “decision” (1) “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” or (2) “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d). Deciding whether a state court’s decision “involved” an unreasonable application of federal law or “was based on” an unreasonable determination of fact requires the federal habeas court to “train its attention on the particular reasons—both legal and factual—why state courts rejected a state prisoner’s federal claims,” Hittson v. Chatman, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (GINSBURG, J., concurring in denial of certiorari) (slip op., at 1), and to give appropriate deference to that decision, Harrington v. Richter, 562 U. S. 86, 101–102 (2011).
When the last state court to address the merits of the petitioner’s claims does not provide any reasons, however, this inquiry is “more difficult.” Here’s what federal the federal habeas court should do:
We hold that the federal court should “look through” the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning. But the State may rebut the presumption by showing that the unexplained affirmance relied or most likely did rely on different grounds than the lower state court’s decision, such as alternative grounds for affirmance that were briefed or argued to the state supreme court or obvious in the record it reviewed.
This “look through” approach is different from the one urged by the State (and by the dissenters). That approach would have precluded federal habeas relief as long as a reasonable basis “could have supported” the state court’s rejection of the petitioner’s claims.
The big question going forward will be what is required to rebut the majority’s look-through presumption. One particular issue will be the extent to which the unreasonableness of the looked-through-to lower state court opinion will itself be a basis for rebutting the presumption that the highest state court adopted that same unreasonable reasoning. Justice Breyer indicates that “it is more likely that a state supreme court’s single word ‘affirm’ rests upon alternative grounds where the lower state court decision is unreasonable than, e.g., where the lower court rested on a state-law procedural ground” and that “the unreasonableness of the lower court’s decision itself provides some evidence that makes it less likely the state supreme court adopted the same reasoning.”
Justice Gorsuch’s dissent emphasizes this aspect of the majority opinion, calling it “welcome news of a sort.” He writes: “If, as the Court holds, the ‘look through’ presumption can be rebutted ‘where the lower state court decision is unreasonable,’ it’s hard to see what good it does.” It is not clear that the majority’s opinion goes as far as Justice Gorsuch suggests. But what will be sufficient to rebut the majority’s look-through presumption is likely to be a major issue in the wake of the Court’s decision.