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October 3, 2012

AEDPA deference issues before SCOTUS in Johnson v. Williams

As effectively previewed in this SCOTUSblog post, which is titled "Argument preview: What does a court’s silence mean?," the Justices this morning have heard argument on an important habeas issue. Here is how Lyle Denniston starts his preview:

In 1996, persuaded that federal courts were second-guessing state courts’ criminal law decisions too often, Congress imposed strict new limits on the power of federal judges to overturn a state conviction or sentence.  In short, Congress told the federal judiciary to show much greater respect for the state judiciary and to honor its rulings unless such a decision quite clearly was wrong, under binding prior rulings by the Supreme Court. It is a tough standard, and Congress meant it to be.  But the federal courts have now split on how they are to react when a state court has upheld a state guilty verdict, but is simply silent on one or more legal or constitutional issues in the case.  While the state court in the end had rejected the prisoner’s challenge, what did its silence on a key question mean?  That is what the Supreme Court plans to decide in a California murder case involving the judge’s dismissal of one “hold-out” member of a jury.

The state of California persuaded the Court to hear its plea in the case of Johnson v. Williams partly by complaining strongly that the Ninth Circuit Court has notoriously refused to defer to state courts in criminal law cases.  In the 2010 Term, the state said in its petition, the Supreme Court four times had overturned Ninth Circuit rulings for allegedly failing to follow “the highly deferential standard of review” laid down by Congress in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).  The Ninth Circuit ruling in this case, it argued, “strikes at the heart of AEDPA’s cornerstone reform of habeas corpus.” That, of course, is a common tactic by lawyers who appeal Ninth Circuit decisions, since that court each year seems to have considerable trouble with its rulings surviving Supreme Court review.

The specific issue that the Court granted is the effect on federal habeas review if a state inmate had raised a constitutional challenge in an appeal in state court, but the state tribunal did not even mention it in ruling against the prisoner on other legal grounds.  That question focused on the language of the 1996 habeas law, which requires deference to a state court’s “adjudication on the merits.”  If a state court decision does decide the merits, the statute says, a federal court cannot overturn it unless the ruling contradicted or failed to follow “clearly established federal law” as spelled out by the Supreme Court, or else resulted from “an unreasonable determination of the facts” that were before the state court.

UPDATE:  The transcript from this morning's oral argument is now available at this link, and Lyle Denniston has this new post on the case titled "Argument recap: Pushing the envelope, needlessly."

October 3, 2012 at 11:31 AM | Permalink


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Wow. You can really see Lyle Denniston's bias here. What Denniston doesn't seem to grasp is that a federal constitutional claim and a state law claim may overlap to a significant extent. That's the crux of the issue, but you'd never get that from Denniston's write up. If the state court's reasoning is based on state precedent that discusses the federal right involved, then the issue really isn't silence, but a lack of citation to the federal constitutional provision.

Crime and Consequences, while it comes to a conclusion, has a far better analysis of the issue:


Also, Denniston's piece has this bit of tendentiousness:

"If the Court follows its rather customary practice of fretting that the Ninth Circuit Court is prone to error, especially in criminal habeas cases, the state has offered it a simple way to rule for the state and reinstate Williams’s murder conviction: treat silence by a state court as a sufficient rationale to support its rejection of a state prisoner’s challenge, as a gesture of respect and deference."

This is pretty dumb. Denniston links the Supreme Court's rightful skepticism of Ninth Circuit habeas decisions with a clear path to overturn, as if the Court is looking to overturn the Ninth Circuit without regard to the merits. That's probably not what he intends, but he linked the two concepts and makes the unseemly implication that the Ninth's history with the Court is somehow relevant to the merits. Mr. Denniston ought to reconsider that implication.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 3, 2012 12:01:33 PM

Do we not have a bit of a goose / gander problem here vis-a-vis jurisprudence requiring proper exhaustion and "fair presentation" of claims to state courts? In Baldwin v. Reese (2004), the Supreme Court refused to cut the prisoner this kind of slack.

Suppose Williams only raised the state law claim in state court, and then raised the Sixth Amendment claim on federal habeas? Would that claim be deemed to have been fairly presented?

Posted by: SashokJD | Oct 5, 2012 1:40:26 PM

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