October 30, 2017
WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
Marion Wilson was convicted of murder and sentenced to
death. He sought habeas relief in Georgia Superior Court,
claiming that his counsel's ineffectiveness during
sentencing violated the Sixth Amendment. The court denied
the petition, in relevant part, because it concluded that
counsel's performance was not deficient and had not
prejudiced Wilson. The Georgia Supreme Court summarily
denied his application for a certificate of probable cause
to appeal. Wilson subsequently filed a federal habeas
petition, raising the same ineffective-assistance claim.
The District Court assumed that his counsel was deficient
but deferred to the state habeas court's conclusion
that any deficiencies did not prejudice Wilson. The
Eleventh Circuit affirmed. First, however, the panel
concluded that the District Court was wrong to "look
though" the State Supreme Court's unexplained
decision and assume that it rested on the grounds given in
the state habeas court's opinion, rather than ask what
arguments "could have supported" the State
Supreme Court's summary decision. The en banc court
agreed with the panel's methodology.
A federal habeas court reviewing an unexplained
state-court decision on the merits should "look
through" that decision to the last related state-court
decision that provides a relevant rationale and presume that
the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning. The
State may rebut the presumption by showing that the
unexplained decision most likely relied on different grounds
than the reasoned decision below. Pp. 5-11.
(a) In Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, the Court
held that where there has been one reasoned state judgment
rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding
that judgment or rejecting the same claim are presumed to
rest upon the same ground. In Ylst, where the last
reasoned opinion on the claim explicitly imposed a procedural
default, the Court presumed that a later decision rejecting
the claim did not silently disregard that bar and consider
Since Ylst, every Circuit to have considered the
matter, but for the Eleventh Circuit, has applied a
"look through" presumption even where the state
courts did not apply a procedural bar to review, and most
Circuits applied the presumption prior to Ylst. The
presumption is often realistic, for state higher courts often
issue summary decisions when they have examined the lower
court's reasoning and found nothing significant with
which they disagree. The presumption also is often more
efficiently applied than a contrary approach that would
require a federal court to imagine what might have been the
state court's supportive reasoning.
The State argues that Harrington v. Richter, 562
U.S. 86, controls here and that Ylst should apply,
at most, where the federal habeas court is trying to
determine whether a state-court decision without opinion
rested on a state procedural ground or whether the state
court reached the merits of a federal issue.
Richter, however, did not directly concern the issue
in this case-whether to "look through" the silent
state higher court opinion to the lower court's reasoned
opinion in order to determine the reasons for the higher
court's decision. In Richter, there was no lower
court opinion to look to. And Richter does not say
that Ylst's reasoning does not apply in the
context of an unexplained decision on the merits. Indeed,
this Court has "looked though" to lower court
decisions in cases involving the merits. See, e.g.,
Premov. Moore, 562 U.S. 115, 123-133. Pp. 5-9.
(b) The State's further arguments are unconvincing. It
points out that the "look though" presumption may
not accurately identify the grounds for a higher court's
decision. But the "look through" presumption is not
an absolute rule. Additional evidence that might not be
sufficient to rebut the presumption in a case like
Ylst, where the lower court rested on a state-law
procedural ground, would allow a federal court to conclude
that counsel has rebutted the presumption in a case decided
on the merits. For instance, a federal court may conclude
that the presumption is rebutted where counsel identifies
convincing alternative arguments for affirmance that were
made to the State's highest court, or equivalent evidence
such as an alternative ground that is obvious in the
state-court record. The State also argues that this Court
does not necessarily presume that a federal court of
appeals' silent opinion adopts the reasoning of the court
below, but that is a different context. Were there to be a
"look through" approach as a general matter in that
context, judges and lawyers might read those decisions as
creating, through silence, binding circuit precedent. Here, a
federal court "looks through" the silent decision
for a specific and narrow purpose, to identify the grounds
for the higher court's decision as the Antiterrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act requires. Nor does the "look
through" approach show disrespect for the States;
rather, it seeks to replicate the grounds for the higher
state court's decision. Finally, the "look
though" approach is unlikely to lead state courts to
write full opinions where they would have preferred to decide
summarily, at least not to any significant degree. Pp. 9-11.
834 F.3d 1227, reversed and remanded.
BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which
ROBERTS, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan,
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)
requires a prisoner who challenges (in a federal habeas
court) a matter "adjudicated on the merits in State
court" to show that the relevant state-court
"decision" (1) "was contrary to, or involved
an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal
law, " or (2) "was based on an unreasonable
determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented
in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. §2254(d).
Deciding whether a state court's decision
"involved" an unreasonable application of federal
law or "was based on" an unreasonable determination
of fact requires the federal habeas court to "train its
attention on the particular reasons-both legal and
factual-why state courts rejected a state prisoner's
federal claims, " Hittson v. Chatman,
576 U.S. ___, ___ (2015) (GINSBURG, J., concurring in denial
of certiorari) (slip op., at 1), and to give appropriate
deference to that decision, Harrington v. Richter,
562 U.S. 86, 101-102 (2011).
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. In that case, a federal habeas
court simply reviews the specific reasons given by the state
court and defers to those reasons if they are reasonable. We
have affirmed this approach time and again. See, e.g.,
Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30, 39-44 (2009) (per
curiam); Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 388-392
(2005); Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 523-538
issue before us, however, is more difficult. It concerns how
a federal habeas court is to find the state court's
reasons when the relevant state-court decision on the merits,
say, a state supreme court decision, does not come
accompanied with those reasons. For instance, the decision
may consist of a one-word order, such as "affirmed"
or "denied." What then is the federal habeas court
to do? We hold that the federal court should "look
through" the unexplained decision to the last related
state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale.
It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted
the same reasoning. But the State may rebut the presumption
by showing that the unexplained affirmance relied or most
likely did rely on different grounds than the lower state
court's decision, such as alternative grounds for
affirmance that were briefed or argued to the state supreme
court or obvious in the record it reviewed.
a Georgia jury convicted petitioner, Marion Wilson, of murder
and related crimes. After a sentencing hearing, the jury
sentenced Wilson to death. In 1999 the Georgia Supreme Court
affirmed Wilson's conviction and sentence, Wilson v.
State, 271 Ga. 811, 525 S.E.2d 339 (1999), and this
Court denied his petition for certiorari, Wilson v.
Georgia, 531 U.S. 838 (2000).
then filed a petition for habeas corpus in a state court, the
Superior Court for Butts County. Among other things, he
claimed that his counsel was "ineffective" during
his sentencing, in violation of the Sixth Amendment. See
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)
(setting forth "two components" of an
ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim: "that
counsel's performance was deficient" and "that
the deficient performance prejudiced the defense").
Wilson identified new evidence that he argued trial counsel
should have introduced at sentencing, namely, testimony from
various witnesses about Wilson's childhood and the
impairment of the frontal lobe of Wilson's brain.
hearing, the state habeas court denied the petition in
relevant part because it thought Wilson's evidence did
not show that counsel was "deficient, " and, in any
event, counsel's failure to find and present the new
evidence that Wilson offered had not prejudiced Wilson.
Wilson v. Terry, No. 2001-V-38 (Super. Ct. Butts
Cty., Ga., Dec. 1, 2008), App. 60-61. In the court's
view, that was because the new evidence was
"inadmissible on evidentiary grounds, " was
"cumulative of other testimony, " or
"otherwise would not have, in reasonable probability,
changed the outcome of the trial." Id., at 61.
Wilson applied to the Georgia Supreme Court for a certificate
of probable cause to appeal the state habeas court's
decision. But the Georgia Supreme Court denied the
application without any explanatory opinion. Wilson v.
Terry, No. 2001-V-38 (May 3, 2010), App. 87, cert,
denied, 562 U.S. 1093 (2010).
subsequently filed a petition for habeas corpus in the United
States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. He
made what was essentially the same "ineffective
assistance" claim. After a hearing, the District Court
denied Wilson's petition. Wilson v. Humphrey,
No. 5:10-cv-489 (Dec. 19, 2013), App. 88-89. The court
assumed that Wilson's counsel had indeed been
"deficient" in failing adequately to investigate
Wilson's background and physical condition for mitigation
evidence and to present what he likely would have found at
the sentencing hearing. Id., at 144. But, the court
nonetheless deferred to the state habeas court's
conclusion that these deficiencies did not
"prejudice" Wilson, primarily because the testimony
of many witnesses was "cumulative, " and because
the evidence of physical impairments did not include any
physical examination or other support that would have shown
the state-court determination was "unreasonable."
Id., at 187; see Richter, 562 U.S., at
appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
Wilson v. Warden, 774 F.3d 671 (2014). The panel
first held that the District Court had used the wrong method
for determining the reasoning of the relevant state court,
namely, that of the Georgia Supreme Court (the final and
highest state court to decide the merits of Wilson's
claims). Id., at 678. That state-court decision, the
panel conceded, was made without an opinion. But, the federal
court was wrong to "look through" that decision and
assume that it rested on the grounds given in the lower
court's decision. Instead of "looking through"
the decision to the state habeas court's opinion, the
federal court should have asked what arguments "could
have supported" the Georgia Supreme Court's refusal
to grant permission to appeal. The panel proceeded to
identify a number of bases that it believed reasonably could
have supported the decision. Id., at 678-681.
Eleventh Circuit then granted Wilson rehearing en banc so
that it could consider the matter of methodology. Wilson
v. Warden,834 F.3d 1227 (2016). Ultimately six judges
(a majority) agreed with the panel and held that its
"could have supported" approach was correct.
Id., at 1235. Five dissenting judges believed that
the District Court should have used the methodology it did
use, namely, the "look through" approach.
Id., at 1242-1247, 1247-1269. Wilson then sought
certiorari here. Because the Eleventh Circuit's opinion
creates a split among the Circuits, we granted the petition.
Compare id., at 1285 (applying "could have
supported" approach), with Grueninger v. Director,
Va. Dept. of Corrections,813 F.3d 517, 525-526 (CA4
2016) (applying "look through" presumption
post-Richter), and Cannedy v. Adams, 706
F.3d 1148, 1156-1159 (CA9 2013) (same); see also Clements
v. Clarke,592 F.3d 45, 52 (CA1 2010) (applying