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Federal habeas court must presume the state court adjudicated the defendant’s claims on the merits

Johnson v. Williams, USSC No. 11-465, 2/20/13

United States Supreme Court decision, reversing and remanding Williams v. Cavazos, 646 F.3d 626 (9th Cir. 2011)

When a defendant convicted in state court raises a federal claim and a state court rules against the defendant in an opinion that addresses some issues but does not expressly address the federal claim in question, the federal habeas court must presume (subject to rebuttal) that the federal claim was adjudicated on the merits:

….AEDPA sharply limits the circumstances in which a federal court may issue a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner whose claim was “adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d). In [Harrington v.] Richter, 562 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 10) [(2011)], we held that §2254(d) “does not require a state court to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to have been ‘adjudicated on the merits.’” Rather, we explained, “[w]hen a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.” Id., at ___ ([Richter] slip op., at 9).

Our reasoning in Richter points clearly to the answer to the question presented in the case at hand. Although Richter itself concerned a state-court order that did not address any of the defendant’s claims, we see no reason why the Richter presumption should not also apply when a state-court opinion addresses some but not all of a defendant’s claims. (Slip op. at 7).

A case of importance to counsel handling federal habeas litigation, though its holding should not be a surprise in light of Richter. The bit of slack in the decision that might benefit some litigants is its rejection of the government’s request to make the presumption of adjudication on the merits irrebuttable. (Slip op. at 10-11). The Court also gives some examples of the “unusual” circumstances under which the “strong” presumption might be rebutted—e.g., if the state standard applied to the federal claim is “less protective” or is “quite different from” the federal standard, or a provision of the Federal Constitution or a federal precedent was “simply mentioned in passing in a footnote or was buried in a string cite[,]” or, interestingly, if a federal claim is “rejected as a result of sheer inadvertence,…” (Slip op. at 11-12). How might that be demonstrated, one wonders? So does Justice Scalia, who concurred in the judgment but argued the majority’s standard “will guarantee protracted litigation”; he believes the only way to rebut the presumption is to show, “based on the explicit text of the court’s order, or upon standard practice and understanding in the jurisdiction with regard to the meaning of an ambiguous text, that the judgment did not purport to decide the federal question.” (Concurring op. at 1, 6).

Update: The original post neglected to link to our post on the cert grant in this case, which noted that the Seventh Circuit seemed to follow the same rule the Ninth Circuit applied in this case. Thus the importance of the decision to counsel handling federal habeas cases in the Seventh Circuit.

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