December 01, 2017

SCOTUS 2017 Fall Term Review: Two Capital Cases Argued

On October 30, 2017, the United States Supreme Court heard back-to-back oral arguments in two capital cases: Ayestas v. Davis out of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and Wilson v. Sellers out of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Decisions are expected in late spring 2018. 

Wilson v. Sellers, No. 16-6855

Wilson v. Sellers seeks to clarify the limits of federal court deference to state court decisions and asks whether Harrington v. Richter (2011), overrules what is known as the “look-through” rule set forth in Ylst v. Nunnemaker (1991). In Richter, the Supreme Court held that in the case of a summary or unreasoned opinion from a state supreme court, a federal district court may presume that the state court considered and denied the case on the merits. In deciding Richter, however, the Court did not indicate whether it was overruling its earlier holding in Ylst that a federal habeas court must “look through” such a summary state court order to evaluate the merits of the claim in the last reasoned and written decision.

The duel between Richter and Ylst is important because federal habeas courts must defer to state court adjudications “on the merits.” Where deference applies, federal courts can overturn the state court decision only if the state court made unreasonable findings of fact or unreasonably applied clearly established federal law. When faced with a summary state court opinion that does not explain which laws or facts the state court found or applied, Richter instructs federal courts to ask whether there is “any reasonable argument” to support the state court decision, greatly limiting the availability of federal court relief. If federal courts can “look-through” to the last reasoned decision as instructed by Ylst, however, the petitioner is in a much better position to make an argument about why that reasoning was wrong and relief should be granted.

In Mr. Wilson’s case, the last reasoned decision came from the trial court at the state habeas stage, where that court appeared to make several unreasonable factual findings concerning trial counsel’s deficient performance and then denied relief. On appeal from that decision, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a simple one-sentence summary denial of review. Following the Georgia Supreme Court’s summary denial, Mr. Wilson then appealed to the federal district court, which looked through the Georgia Supreme Court’s summary opinion to the opinion of the trial court and found that the trial court’s factual and legal findings were inconsistent with the record. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit rejected the district court’s approach and, relying on Richter, asked whether there was “any reasonable basis” for the Georgia Supreme Court’s summary decision. After developing their own reasons for denying relief, which were different than those provided in the trial court’s opinion, the 11th Circuit panel denied relief.

Upon petition by Mr. Wilson, the 11th Circuit vacated the panel decision and considered the case en banc. During oral argument, counsel for the State conceded that Mr. Wilson’s interpretation of Ylst was correct. The State agreed with Mr. Wilson that the federal district court and the appellate panel had erred in disregarding the much lengthier opinion from the trial court. Despite the parties’ agreement, the en banc court issued a 6-5 ruling reaffirming the panel decision based on an assumption that the U.S. Supreme Court in Richter intended to silently overrule the presumption in Ylst. That question is now directly before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mark Olive, a member of the Project’s Steering Committee, argued on behalf of Mr. Wilson.

Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16-6795

Ayestas Team at the U.S. Supreme Court
Photo courtesy of the Death Penalty Information Center

During federal habeas representation, counsel for capital prisoners seek funding approval for investigative expenses through the district courts under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f), which states: “Upon a finding that investigative, expert, or other services are reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant, whether in connection with issues relating to guilt or the sentence, the court may authorize the defendant’s attorneys to obtain such services on behalf of the defendant.”

The principal issue before the Court in Ayestas v. Davis is what the term “reasonably necessary” means in the context of approval for investigative expenses in a capital case. In Ayestas and in prior cases, the Fifth Circuit has taken the position that for investigative funds to be “reasonably necessary,” prisoners must first demonstrate the merits of the underlying claim that the funding is being requested to investigate. Other circuits simply ask whether a reasonable attorney with limited resources would choose to spend some of those resources pursuing a particular line of investigation in advance of submitting a habeas petition. Mr. Ayestas argued that the Fifth Circuit approach puts the cart before the horse: that the merits of the underlying claim cannot be proven before an investigation into that claim is funded and the results of the investigation are evaluated.

The ABA submitted an amicus brief in support of Mr. Ayestas on June 16, 2017. Mr. Ayestas is represented by University of Maryland Law Professor Lee Kovarsky and pro bono attorneys from O’Melveny & Myers.