April 11, 2018

United States Supreme Court Instructs Federal Courts to "Look Through" Summary Opinions to Determine Reasonableness

Christina Mathieson Hughes, Staff Attorney

On April 17, 2018, Justice Breyer announced the opinion for the United States Supreme Court in Wilson v. Sellers. At issue was how to determine whether a state court’s decision was reasonable if the state court did not explicitly provide the rationale for its decision. The Court instructed federal courts to “look through” a summary opinion to the most recent reasoned state court decision.

When a state post-conviction case enters the federal appeals process, the federal courts consider whether the state court’s decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law” or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Justice Breyer wrote, “This is a straightforward inquiry when the last state court to decide a prisoner’s federal claim explains its decision on the merits in a reasoned opinion . . . [A] federal habeas court simply reviews the specific reasons given by the state court and defers to those reasons if they are reasonable.”

The inquiry is substantially less straightforward when the relevant state court decision is unaccompanied by a rationale, such as when the decision is simply “affirmed” or “denied.”

The Court held that when the relevant state court decision consists of a summary response, such as “affirmed” or “denied,” the federal court reviewing the state court decision should presume that the unexplained decision adopted the rationale of the last related state court decision that does provide reasoning. The prosecution may rebut the presumption that the higher court adopted the reasoning of the lower court’s opinion by showing that the higher court’s unexplained summary opinion “relied or most likely did rely on different grounds than the lower court’s decision.”

The complex procedural issue addressed by the Court arose out of the case of Marion Wilson, who was convicted of murder and sentenced him to death in 1997 in Georgia. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Wilson’s convictions and death sentence on appeal.

Wilson then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in state court. The state court denied Wilson’s claims, finding that the evidence Wilson provided during the state habeas proceedings would have been inadmissible at trial, was cumulative of other testimony, and would not have likely changed the outcome of Wilson’s trial. Wilson appealed the denial of state habeas relief to the Georgia Supreme Court, which denied his appeal without explanation.

Following the Georgia Supreme Court’s summary denial, Wilson filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in a federal district court. The federal district court found that Wilson’s trial counsel were likely constitutionally deficient but denied relief anyway, holding that the state lower court reasonably determined that the deficient performance was not prejudicial—i.e., it did not affect the outcome of Wilson’s trial.

Wilson appealed the federal district court’s denial of relief to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the district court erred by finding the state lower court’s decision regarding prejudice to be reasonable. A three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit rejected the federal district court’s analysis for a different reason, finding that the federal district court should never have even considered the question of whether the state lower court’s decision was reasonable. Instead, the panel held that the federal district court should have considered what arguments “could have supported” the Georgia Supreme Court’s summary denial—without regard for the lower court’s rationale. The panel then identified several alternative rationales to explain the Georgia Supreme Court’s summary denial.

The Eleventh Circuit granted a rehearing en banc to consider the new methodology introduced by the three-judge panel, with a bare majority upholding the panel decision. The dissenting judges believed that the federal district court had correctly considered the lower state court’s rationale when determining the reasonableness of the state courts’ decisions. The Supreme Court agreed with the dissent, holding that it is proper to "look through" an unreasoned decision to a reasoned decision below. The decision opens the door for Wilson to return to the Eleventh Circuit and renew his argument that the federal courts should overturn the decision of the state courts denying relief, because the state lower court decision was unreasonable.

Justice Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion, which Justices Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Gorsuch found that neither the governing statute nor traditional principles of appellate review permit a “look through” presumption and cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s own rules, which instruct practitioners to avoid attributing a lower court’s reasoning to a summary affirmation by the Supreme Court.

Christina Mathieson Hughes, Staff Attorney