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Opinion recap: Silence speaks a little louder


Continuing to sort out when a lower court decision is or is not a decision, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that state court rulings that do not mention a significant constitutional issue may sometimes be treated as if they had — but that is open to challenge.  The Court’s main opinion in Johnson v. Williams (11-465), a California murder case, gave the benefit of the doubt this time to the state court.

The new ruling, like a somewhat similar one issued two years ago (Harrington v. Richter), has to do with the power of federal courts to hear challenges by state prison inmates to their state convictions or sentences.   Under a 1996 federal law, individuals convicted in state courts have to clear two legal hurdles before they may win their post-verdict challenge in a federal habeas court.

First, they must show that they had first raised their specific legal claim in a state court; if they did not, they cannot go ahead with their federal case at all.  Second, if the state court had decided that issue against them, the prisoner can win in federal court only by showing that the state court decision contradicted a clear prior decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, or that it was an unreasonable reading of the facts that the state court considered.

That second requirement is what was at issue in the new Johnson decision, and in the Harrington ruling in January last year: how does a federal judge know whether a state court has actually decided the issue the prisoner raised?  In the language of the federal law, when can the judge conclude that the state court had “adjudicated” that issue “on the merits”?

In both the Johnson and Harrington cases, the state court that handled the prisoner’s case was silent on a specific constitutional issue.  In Harrington, the Court ruled that, if the state court had issued a ruling that rejected every issue that the prisoner has raised, but did so without explaining its reaction to any of those claims individually, the federal judge must act as if the state court ruled on all of those issues.  The inmate would have a chance to try to convince the federal judge that the state court should not be interpreted that way.

In other words, in that decision, the Court found that silence on all issues meant that all had been decided.

The Court this Term took on the Johnson case in order to consider a variation in that scenario.  This time, the state court’s silence was only partial, but it was the issue on which it had remained silent that the prisoner wanted to raise in federal habeas court.

This was the specific issue: if the state court ruled against the prisoner, its decision discussed some of the claims the prisoner made and explained why those were being rejected, but the opinion did not discuss the federal constitutional issue the prisoner had posed, can it be said that its silence on that issue meant it was not decided at all?

The answer, the Court said Wednesday in an opinion written by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., was dictated by what the Court had ruled in the Harrington case.  Although that case involved silence on all issues, “we see no reason why” the outcome should be different when the state court was silent on the federal constitutional issue but discussed the other claims.   The ruling against the prisoner in state court, the opinion concluded, was complete, and so it amounted to a ruling on the merits of the constitutional claim even though it went unmentioned.

The Court, as it did in the Harrington case, said that the federal judge is to be guided to this conclusion only as a “presumption.”  It is not a binding conclusion, the Court said, rejecting the furthest argument made by the state of California.  The state prisoner does have a right to try to counter (“rebut”) the presumption.

The Court specified — and this part of the ruling produced a protest (but not a dissent) from Justice Antonin Scalia — that the state prisoner can rebut the presumption by showing that the state court had “overlooked” the federal constitutional issue.  In other words, the main opinion said, the prisoner can show that the issue was raised, and that it simply got no “evaluation” by the state court — a difficult, but presumably not impossible, form of proof.

A court, the opinion added, is normally understood to have made a ruling “on the merits” only if that opinion was delivered “after the court heard and evaluated the evidence” and the arguments the two sides made.  “If a federal claim is rejected as a result of sheer inadvertence,” the Court went on, “it has not been evaluated.”

Although Justice Scalia in his separate opinion, joining only in the result of this specific case, said that the new standard of when a claim had been decided in state court would produce a flood of litigation, the Alito opinion for the Court said that would not happen.

The Court had before it Wednesday a case in which California state courts had ruled against a Long Beach woman, Tara Sheneva Williams, who had been convicted of murder for her role as the getaway driver after a robbery of a liquor store that left the store owner dead from a gunshot wound.   When the jury was deliberating Williams’s fate, there was one holdout juror who was ultimately dismissed by the trial judge for alleged bias on the case.

In challenging the guilty verdict that followed that juror’s dismissal and replacement, Williams asked the California appeals court to rule that her Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial was violated.   That court ruled against Williams, but discussed only her claims based on state law, and remained silent on the Sixth Amendment claim.   That was the one Williams tried to raise later in her federal habeas challenge.

The Court, in its decision, went over the case on its own, and concluded that the state court had not overlooked the Sixth Amendment issue, so the Ninth Circuit Court had been wrong in ruling that the state court had not actually decided that question.  The Ninth Circuit, having freed itself to rule on the Sixth Amendment issue, ruled that Williams’s right under that provision was violated because the juror may have been thrown off the case because prosecutors feared that the juror would rule against them if allowed to remain on the jury.

The Court’s ruling presumably means that the Ninth Circuit will now have to decide whether the state court ruling against the Sixth Amendment claim by Williams was in conflict with a Supreme Court ruling, or a serious misreading of the facts.

The Court has been holding another case on this meaning-of-silence issue in another federal habeas case, Childers v. Floyd (docket 11-42), and presumably will now act on that case in the wake of its decision in the Williams case.   The Childers case involves the conviction of a former county commissioner in Escambia County, Florida — Wyon Dale Childers — on bribery charges.   He was charged with allegedly bribing another county commissioner to get him to vote for a soccer stadium in the county.

When Childers’s case got to the Eleventh Circuit Court, that court ruled against him and laid down a flat rule that a state court has issued a ruling on the merits any time it issued a decision without basing its decision on a procedural rule — in other words, no matter how a state court opinion had dealt with the issues in the case, its ruling settled the merits of those issues whenever it did not cast them aside on procedural grounds.

That outcome appears to deviate, perhaps significantly, from the rule that the Justices announced in the Williams case.  What will likely happen, though, is that the Justices will now send the Childers case back to the Eleventh Circuit to take the Williams decision into account.

This decision, in plain English:

Individuals who are convicted of crimes in state courts have a right, under federal law, to pursue a challenge in federal court after they have attempted all of their challenges and failed in state court.   But a 1996 federal law sharply restricts the power of the federal court to second-guess the state court ruling that is at issue.

If the state court had ruled on the issues that the prisoner had raised there, the federal judge reviewing the case later is required to defer to the state court, unless it contradicted a clear Supreme Court decision or seriously misread the facts of the case.   Those are difficult things to prove, so it makes a real difference whether the state court had ruled on the issues and thus earned the federal court’s deference.

But, what if the state court has ruled against the inmate without discussing why it did so, on any given issue?  The Supreme Court has issued two rulings, one on Wednesday and one in January of last year, that seek to answer that question.   In short, what the Court has concluded is that silence by the state court does not mean it did not decide an issue, even if it did not discuss that specific issue.  If it ruled against the inmate after evaluating the claims, but stayed silent on some or all of the claims, those decisions indicated that the silence can be interpreted as a decision, subject to an opportunity by the prisoner to disprove that point.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion recap: Silence speaks a little louder, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 20, 2013, 5:59 PM),