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Opinion analysis: Justices reaffirm “look-through” presumption in federal habeas review of state-court decisions

When a state prisoner seeks to challenge his conviction through a federal habeas petition, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 requires the federal courts to defer to the state court’s resolution of claims “adjudicated on the merits.” But what happens when the last state-court decision in the prisoner’s case is a summary appellate ruling, with no explanation for why the lower-court ruling rejecting the prisoner’s claim was affirmed? In its 6-3 ruling yesterday in Wilson v. Sellers, the Supreme Court clarified that, in such circumstances, “the federal court should ‘look through’ the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale,” and presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same rationale. But even in reaffirming such a “presumption,” the Supreme Court emphasized that a state can rebut that presumption if it can show “that the unexplained affirmance relied or most likely did rely on different grounds than the lower state court’s decision.” Thus, Wilson’s true significance will likely depend upon how easily states are able to make such a demonstration going forward.

As I noted in my argument preview, at issue in Wilson is the apparent tension between two prior Supreme Court opinions as applied to claims brought by a Georgia prisoner. In its 1991 decision in Ylst v. Nunnemaker, the court articulated a presumption that, “[w]here there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same claim rest upon the same ground.” Under Ylst, federal habeas courts are supposed to “look through” the summary state-court ruling to the decision that was actually on the merits of the claim raised in the federal habeas petition. But in 2011, the court in Harrington v. Richter held that even a summary ruling by a state court can count as an adjudication “on the merits” under AEDPA. The question presented in Wilson was whether Richter thereby overruled Ylst (as a 6-5 majority of the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had concluded), or whether it simply addressed a different set of cases, in which there was no reasoned state-court decision on the constitutional question presented.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer held that the answer was the latter. He noted that because there had been no state-court merits ruling in Richter, the facts in Richter did not implicate Ylst, and that Richter set forth its own presumption, “which ‘may be overcome when there is reason to think some other explanation for the state court’s decision is more likely.’” In other words, Richter was the exception, and Ylst was the rule.

That the Ylst presumption survived Richter does not resolve this case, though, because it is only a presumption. The question remains: How can a state show that the presumption should be overcome — and that, in fact, a summary state appellate ruling was indeed based on different grounds than the lower-court decision analyzing the merits? As Breyer explained:

A federal habeas court may conclude that [the state] has rebutted the presumption on the basis of convincing alternative arguments for affirmance made to the State’s highest court or equivalent evidence presented in its briefing to the federal court similarly establishing that the State’s highest court relied on a different ground than the lower state court, such as the existence of a valid ground for affirmance that is obvious from the state-court record.

Even though the Georgia Supreme Court ruled, after the oral argument in Wilson, that its summary decisions should not be read to adopt the lower courts’ reasoning, Breyer concluded that “[t]his misses the point.” He explained that the Ylst presumption can be overcome through affirmative evidence that the summary state-court opinion in the specific case at issue rested on a different ground than the merits ruling below, not through a state-law presumption (like the one belatedly articulated by the Georgia Supreme Court) that it did.

Writing for himself and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented, arguing that applying the Ylst presumption to summary state-court affirmances treats state courts with disrespect, because it contradicts the Supreme Court’s own guidance that its summary affirmances “may be read only as signaling agreement with a lower court’s judgment and not necessarily its reasons.” Of course, any inconsistency with the Supreme Court’s customary approach to summary affirmances comes not from the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, but from AEDPA, which mandates federal deference to state-court merits adjudications. And as Breyer added, “this approach is more likely to respect what the state court actually did, and easier to apply in practice, than to ask the federal court to substitute for silence the federal court’s thought as to more supportive reasoning.”

The real thrust of Gorsuch’s dissent was his claim that the majority’s analysis won’t end up changing the outcome in many cases, because it won’t apply when the lower state-court ruling is unreasonable, or in any other case in which the state can articulate good reasons for believing that the summary affirmance rested on different grounds. Whether that prediction turns out to be true remains to be seen. But against the competing backdrop of Ylst and Richter, preserving both the “look-through” presumption and a state’s ability to overcome it certainly seems the least disruptive to existing practice—and perhaps the best explanation for why Justice Anthony Kennedy (who authored the majority opinion in Richter) and Chief Justice John Roberts joined the majority in siding with a federal habeas petitioner.

Recommended Citation: Steve Vladeck, Opinion analysis: Justices reaffirm “look-through” presumption in federal habeas review of state-court decisions, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 18, 2018, 1:19 PM),