In Wilson v. Sellers, decided on April 17, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed what deference federal courts should give to state court decisions that fail to provide any reasoning. Federal courts considering a petition for a writ of habeas corpus are required to defer to the reasonable judgments of a state court in the same case, severely limiting the ability of federal courts to grant relief, even where the court might reach a different conclusion if presented with the same evidence. But in instances where the highest state court opinion summarily affirms a denial of relief from a lower state court without providing any reasoning, federal courts lacked a uniform approach. In these situations, some federal courts looked to the most recent reasoned state court opinion issued in the case and assessed the reasonableness of that decision, whereas other federal courts refused to look beyond the high court’s summary denial and deferred to that judgment if a reasonable basis for it could be imagined.
In Mr. Wilson’s case, the federal courts had taken the second approach, deferring to the state high court’s summary denial of relief based on hypothetical reasoning, in lieu of looking at the state lower court’s explanation for its decision. The state lower court decision in that case was very likely based on unreasonable grounds, meaning that, potentially, no deference would have been required. The Supreme Court rejected the approach used in Mr. Wilson’s case in an opinion authored by Justice Breyer. The Court held that in such cases the federal courts should “look through” to the last reasoned state court decision and presume that the higher state court used the same reasoning. The Court made clear, however, that this is a rebuttable presumption that can be overcome by the State if it can show that the unexplained high court decision likely rested on alternate grounds.