Supreme Court: federal habeas court should ‘look through’ unexplained state court judgment

Supreme Court: federal habeas court should ‘look through’ unexplained state court judgment

In a 6-3 decision on Tuesday, the US Supreme Court [official website] held [opinion, PDF] that a federal court in a habeas corpus matter reviewing an unexplained state court decision on the merits should “look through” that decision to the last related state court decision that provides a relevant rationale and “presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning” but that the state may rebut the presumption by showing that the unexplained decision most likely relied on different grounds.

The case involved Marion Wilson who has been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Wilson sought habeas relief in Georgia Superior Court claiming a Sixth Amendment [GPO backgrounder, PDF] violation due to ineffective assistance of counsel. That court denied relief finding that counsel’s performance was not deficient. An appeal to the state supreme court was denied without an opinion and Wilson filed a habeas petition before federal court.

Granting that there was an ineffective assistance of counsel in Wilson’s case, the US District Court for the Middle District of Georgia [official website] nevertheless felt constrained to defer to the state habeas court’s conclusion that any deficiencies with counsel did not prejudice Wilson.

A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit [official website] affirmed the decision but criticized the lower court stating that it was inappropriate for a federal habeas court to look through the state supreme court’s unexplained decision to the opinion of the court below. The 11th Circuit added that the more appropriate course would have been to deliberate what arguments could have supported the state supreme court’s summary decision. The en banc court agreed with the panel’s methodology.

Noting a conflict among the several federal appellate courts concerning this subject matter, the Court granted review and concluded that the federal habeas law employs a “look through presumption.” In doing so, the Court adopted Justice Scalia’s rationale in Ylst v. Nunnemaker which stated: “Where there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same claim rest up on the same ground.” Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, added:

Every Circuit to have considered the matter has applied this presumption, often called the “look through” presumption, but for the Eleventh Circuit—even where the state courts did not apply a procedural bar to review. … That is not surprising in light of the fact that the “look through” presumption is often realistic, for state higher courts often (but certainly not always) write “denied” or “affirmed” or “dismissed” when they have examined the lower court’s reasoning and found nothing significant with which they disagree. … Moreover, a “look through” presumption is often (but not always) more efficiently applied than a contrary approach—an approach, for example, that would require a federal habeas court to imagine what might have been the state court’s supportive reasoning.

The Court rejected the Georgia government’s argument that a look-through approach will impose an undue burden on state courts to write full opinions where a summary opinion would be more appropriate given the workload in the state judiciary system stating the state failed to provide any evidence to that effect in the many circuits that have applied the look-through approach. The Court added: “given the narrowness of the context, we do not believe that they will feel compelled to [write full opinions in every instance]—at least not to any significant degree.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented stating that traditional principles of appellate review demand “telling readers [of the Court’s opinion] that we independently review each case and that our summary affirmances may be read only as signaling agreement with a lower court’s judgment and not necessarily its reasons.” Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined in the dissent.