Breaking News

Argument preview: What does a court’s silence mean?

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hold one hour of oral argument on a significant issue affecting the power of federal courts to second-guess state court rulings in criminal law cases.  Arguing for the state of California in Johnson v. Williams (docket 11-465) will be deputy state attorney general Stephanie C. Brenan, and for a Long Beach woman, Tara Sheneva Williams, will be Kurt D. Hermansen, a private attorney in San Diego.



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.

Facts of the case

In October 1993, Tara Sheneva Williams of Long Beach agreed to drive two of her friends around town to look for stores that they could rob that night.  At a liquor store, the two friends went inside while Williams waited in the car.  The two women emerged, but then one of them, Carde Taylor, went back in and shot dead the proprietor, Hung Mun Kim, and then emptied the cash register.  Arrested for her role in the crime five years later, Williams said she was at the scene, but blamed Taylor for the shooting.  Taylor was tried separately and convicted, and was sentenced to life without parole.  Williams, too, was charged with murder.

During jury deliberations, the foreman complained to the judge that one juror, No. 6, was balking at following the law.  After quizzing other jurors, who disagreed about what was happening, and then quizzing Juror No. 6, the trial judge dismissed that juror, concluding that repeated comments about requiring a strict standard of “reasonable doubt” disqualified that juror as biased.  The judge relied upon a state law in California that gives trial judges the authority to discharge a juror and replace him or her with an alternate, if the judge finds “good cause” to believe the juror will be unable to perform the proper role as a juror.   With an alternate juror on the panel, the jury promptly convicted Williams.  She was later sentenced to life without parole.

Appealing the case in state court, Williams challenged the judge’s dismissal of the juror under state law, but also claimed that the dismissal of a juror who might be inclined to favor the defendant violated Williams’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  The state court rejected Williams’s state law challenge, but made no mention of the Sixth Amendment argument.   After the California Supreme Court refused (on a second try by Williams) to review the case, Williams went into federal habeas court, to press her Sixth Amendment claim.   Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit found that it had no duty to defer to the state court ruling, since it concluded that the state court had not made an “adjudication on the merits” when it failed to discuss the Sixth Amendment question. It went on to rule that Williams’s right to a jury trial had been violated, finding that the dismissal of Juror No. 6 may have been based upon that juror’s view of the merits of the case.  The trial judge, the Circuit Court said, “cut some corners here.”

The state of California took the case on to the Supreme Court, seeking to raise both the question of whether Williams’s Sixth Amendment rights had been violated and the separate issue of whether the state court had, in fact, rejected the merits of Williams’s challenge, even though it had not discussed specifically the Sixth Amendment part of the challenge.   Citing conflicting precedents from other federal appeals courts, the state’s petition argued that, by rejecting Williams’s state law claim, the state court implicitly had turned down her Sixth Amendment claim, too.   A state court need not comment specifically on a federal question in order to have reached a decision on the merits, the petition contended.  What counts for purposes of federal habeas, the state contended, was whether the bottom-line decision of the state court — not its reasoning — flouted federal law.   Silence on a federal issue raised does not contradict federal law, it said.

If a state court has not said clearly and expressly that it is refusing to rule on a question before it, it must be presumed to have ruled on it, according to California.   Williams’s attorneys filed a pauper’s brief, urging the Supreme Court to deny review by arguing that there actually was no split in the lower courts on the issue and, in any event, that the Ninth Circuit was correct in concluding that the trial judge had no reason to dismiss the “hold-out” juror after that juror had expressed some misgivings about the severity of the murder charge against Williams.

The Court on January 13 agreed to hear the state’s petition, but limited its review to the question of whether the state court did rule on the merits in a way that required the Ninth Circuit to defer to it.  By leaving the Sixth Amendment question unreviewed, the Court in effect denied review of that.

Briefs on the merits

The state’s brief on the merits elaborated on its argument that, if a state court has ruled on a claimed error at a trial, that is all that it needs to do to merit the respect that AEDPA requires when the prisoner involved seeks federal habeas relief.  Unless a state court explicitly disclaims any ruling on an issue raised before it, a federal court is obliged to conclude that the state court had adjudicated all claims on the merits.    State courts, like federal courts, have a duty to enforce the federal Constitution, the brief said, so it is proper to assume that they have done so, even if they don’t write explicitly on such a question.  The appeals court in Williams’s case, it argued, “actually grappled” with the juror dismissal issue, and that was the error that Williams challenged.  That should be enough, the brief contended.

It went on to contend that, because a state like California allows its courts to summarize the issues they decide, federal habeas law should not require them to identify separately each issue before them and make an argument about it, in order to gain later deference from a federal court.  Since even the Supreme Court treats its silence on an issue as an implied rejection of it, the same understanding should apply to state courts when they rule on prisoner challenges.   What the Ninth Circuit ruling in this case would require of state courts, according to the brief, is the recitation of “magic words” in order to earn deference in a state prisoner case.

On the specifics of the Williams case, the state brief argued that Williams’s own counsel had treated her state and federal claims as part of a “single, integrated juror-removal claim.”

The state’s position is supported by thirty-one other states, arguing that the Ninth Circuit ruling is based upon a failure to trust state courts to correct their own errors, and “disregards the long-held understanding that state courts faithfully vindicate federal constitutional rights.”  Unrestricted federal court review of the claims of a state prisoner, that brief asserted, is not necessary to enforce federal constitutional rights.

In her brief on the merits, Tara Sheneva Williams noted that, not only did the state appeals court fail to deal with the Sixth Amendment claim, but the state in its own brief to that court discussed Williams’s case only in terms of the state law giving judges authority to dismiss jurors for “good cause.” In fact, the state appeals court had the case before it twice, and neither time did it address the Sixth Amendment issue.

On the merits of the deference issue, the Williams filing argued that a reviewing court can detect what another court had decided by examining the face of that court’s opinion.  But if that is not sufficient, the brief argued, a federal court can examine the actual reasoning contained in a state court opinion and determine just what was decided there.  Even if a federal court should defer to a state court when the state court has denied relief without giving any reason (as the Supreme Court has previously held), a federal court has the interpretive tools necessary to analyze what a state court has done when the state court supplies reasoning to support its conclusion.   In fact, the Williams brief said, federal appeals courts have developed a logical method of interpreting state court rulings to discern their scope, and that method does not need to be changed now.

Countering the state’s contention that Williams’s challenge was an integrated assertion of both the state law claim and the Sixth Amendment claim, her brief argued that the standards for finding a violation are different for each of the claims.   The state law juror-discharge issue, it added, is only a question of abuse of discretion by the trial judge in ordering a discharge, while the Sixth Amendment issue turns on whether there is a reasonable possibility that the reason for discharging the juror was based on some expression that indicated how the juror was leaning on the merits of the criminal charge.

The Williams petition is supported by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, arguing that every habeas petitioner is entitled to “at least one full and fair consideration of her federal claims,” but contending that that will be denied if a state court issues an opinion dealing with some challenges but fails to address a properly presented federal constitutional claim.  If the state court fails to mention the federal claim, it is only common sense, that brief argued, to conclude that the court either overlooked it or ignored it.


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.   The Court’s prior precedents do suggest that state courts should not be held to too exacting a standard of how they deal with prisoner claims that will ultimately wind up in federal court, and the silence argument by the state in this case would seem to be only a fairly modest expansion of that tolerance.

On the other hand, Williams’s lawyer — and especially the defense lawyers’ association in support of Williams — have also offered the Court a simplistic rationale: look at what a state court actually said, and then decide whether it has given a fair hearing on a federal constitutional claim that could be dispositive of the case.  In essence, the briefs on that side of the case urged the Court to think about what federal habeas review actually means, and whether Congress’s command of deference to state courts necessarily must diminish the scope of habeas review.    The Court in recent years has used the limitations imposed in the AEDPA statute to curtail the scope of habeas review, but the briefs on Williams’s side seek to raise concern that too much may have been given away in that trend.

This case made simple:

After an individual charged with crimes under state law is convicted, he has a right to challenge the verdict and the sentence, first in state appeals courts, and later in federal courts.  But the role of the federal courts in this process is strictly limited, especially by a 1996 law that Congress passed to try to cut down on the number of multiple challenges that state prisoners had been filing in federal courts.  As a result of that law, a federal court cannot overturn a state conviction or sentence unless the state court decision involved clearly deviates from the federal legal principles that have been established by rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.

This duty to defer to state court rulings in criminal cases is supposed to operate on those issues on which a state court has already weighed and decided them.  Sometimes, though, as in this case, a state court may issue a ruling against a state prisoner’s legal claims, but may not discuss all of the claims that the prisoner has made.  That raises the issue of whether the state court has actually decided an issue, whether or not it has explicitly discussed it.  That is the issue in this case from California.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Argument preview: What does a court’s silence mean?, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 2, 2012, 3:48 PM),