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SCOTUS rejects data offered to show inconsistent application of bar to federal habeas review

Deborah K. Johnson v. Donna Kay Lee, 578 U.S. __ (2016)(per curiam); SCOTUS docket

Like Wisconsin, California has a rule that a defendant may not raise a claim for the first time on on state collateral review if he could have raised it on direct appeal. Wisconsin calls it the “Escalona bar.” California calls it the “Dixon bar.” The issue in this case was whether the California Supreme Court’s application of the “Dixon bar” provided an independent and adequate state ground for barring federal habeas review.  SCOTUS answered “yes.”

Lee’s litigation strategy is interesting. After losing her direct appeal in California state courts, she skipped state postconviction review and filed a federal habeas petition. The federal court stayed her petition and directed her to exhaust her state-court remedies. She filed a state habeas petition, which the California Supreme Court denied in a summary order that cited Dixon.

Lee then returned to federal court only to have her federal habeas petition dismissed for procedural default. So Lee challenged the “adequacy” of the Dixon bar by providing the federal court with statistics on the California Supreme Court’s state habeas denials in a single day. Out of 201 summary denials, the California Supreme Court failed to cite Dixon in 9 cases where it should have done so. According to Lee, the missing cites proved that California courts inconsistently apply Dixon.  The Ninth Circuit was concerned enough to remand the case to the district court so that the warden could offer evidence to the contrary. The warden showed that of 4,700 summary habeas denials in a 2-year period, the California Supreme Court cited Dixon more than 500 times. The district court thus held the Dixon bar “adequate.” The Ninth Circuit reversed, and with this per curiam opinion, SCOTUS has reversed the Ninth Circuit.

According to SCOTUS, the Dixon bar is “adequate” because it is both “firmly established” and “regularly followed” by California courts. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991). Furthermore, it is possible that the California Supreme Court did not cite Dixon in cases where it was just easier to summarily dismiss a petition on the merits.  SCOTUS rebuked the Ninth Circuit for essentially imposing mandatory opinion-writing standards on state courts.

By treating every missing citation as a sign of inconsistency, the Court of Appeals “pose[d] an unnecessary dilemma” for California. Kindler, 558 U. S., at 61. The court forced the State to choose between the “finality of [its] judgments” and a burdensome opinion-writing requirement. Ibid.; see Martin, supra, at 312–313 (noting that the California Supreme Court “rules on a staggering number of habeas petitions each year”); Harrington v. Richter, 562 U. S. 86, 99 (2011) (discussing the advantages of summary dispositions). “[F]ederal courts have no authority,” however, “to impose mandatory opinion-writing standards on state courts” as the price of federal respect for their procedural rules. Johnson v. Williams, 568 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 9). The Ninth Circuit’s decision is thus fundamentally at odds with the “federalism and comity concerns that motivate the adequate state ground doctrine in the habeas context.” Kindler, supra, at 62.  “A State’s procedural rules are of vital importance to the orderly administration of its criminal courts; when a federal court permits them to be readily evaded, it undermines the criminal justice system.” Lambrix, supra, at 525. Here, the Ninth Circuit permitted California prisoners to evade a well-established procedural bar that is adequate to bar federal habeas review.


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