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Wilson v. Sellers

United States Supreme Court

April 17, 2018


          Argued October 30, 2017


         Petitioner 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.

         Held: 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 the merits.
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, JJ., joined.



         The 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).

         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. 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 (2003).

         The 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.


         In 1997 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).

         Wilson 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.

         After a 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).

         Wilson 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 111-112.

         Wilson 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.

         The 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 "look ...

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