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SCOTUS: Summary denial of prisoner’s state habeas petition gets deferential AEDPA review

Kernan v. Hinojosa, USSC No. 15-833, 2016 WL 2842454 (May 16, 2016) (per curiam), reversing Hinjosa v. Davey, 803 F.3d 412 (9th Cir. 2015); Scotusblog page

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the California courts hadn’t made a determination of Hinojosa’s claim on the merits and therefore applied de novo review rather than AEDPA’s highly deferential standard. The supreme court summarily holds the court of appeals’ conclusion was wrong, and that AEDPA does apply.

Hinojosa filed a state habeas petition challenging the loss of good-time credits, but the trial court dismissed the petition because it was filed in the wrong county. The state court of appeals summarily affirmed, so Hinojosa filed an original habeas writ with the state supreme court. After that was denied he filed a federal habeas petition. (Slip op. at 1-3).

The Ninth Circuit looked for the “last reasoned state-court opinion” under Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 804-05 (1991), concluded it was the trial court’s decision, and decided that wasn’t a determination of Hinojosa’s claim on the merits. A majority of the Court disagrees. There is a presumption that a reviewing court’s silence about the grounds of its decision implies agreement with a lower court’s decision that is based on procedural error (like improper venue), id. at 803; but that presumption can be—and was in this case—rebutted with “strong evidence”:

…. Improper venue could not possibly have been a ground for the high court’s summary denial of Hinojosa’s claim. There is only one Supreme Court of California—and thus only one venue in which Hinojosa could have sought an original writ of habeas corpus in that court. Under these circumstances, it cannot be that the State Supreme Court’s denial “rest[ed] upon the same ground” as the Superior Court’s. Id., at 803. It quite obviously rested upon some different ground. Ylst’s “look-through” approach is therefore inapplicable.

(Slip op. at 3-4).

A dissent by Sotomayor, joined by Ginsburg, says that what the majority calls “strong evidence” is in fact “a straw man, and a poorly constructed one at that.” (Dissent at 1). While it’s obvious the state supreme court didn’t deny the petition because it was filed in the wrong supreme court, under the state’s habeas rules the likeliest reason for the denial was that the supreme court agreed with the trial court’s procedural dismissal. (Dissent at 1-2).

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