In Georgia Death-Penalty Case, Supreme Court Rebuffs Effort to Further Limit Habeas Corpus Review

In a decision most significant for what it declined to do, the U.S. Supreme Court has rebuffed efforts by state prosecutors to further limit the scope of federal habeas corpus review of state criminal cases. In a 6-3 vote with Justice Breyer writing for the majority, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Georgia death-row prisoner Marion Wilson (pictured), saying that he was entitled to federal-court review of the reasons why the Georgia state courts had rejected his claim that he had been provided ineffective penalty-phase representation. Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, dissented. The Court reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that had denied Wilson's ineffective assistance claim based upon speculation as to why the state appeals court—which had issued only a one-sentence decision—had earlier denied the claim, rather than considering the reasons the trial court had actually done so. The technical legal issue in the case was how a federal court should handle a habeas corpus case filed by a state prisoner when the state appellate court, without explanation, summarily affirmed a reasoned lower-court ruling against the prisoner. Wilson had been sentenced to death in Baldwin County, Georgia in 1997. In his state post-conviction proceedings, he alleged that he had been denied the effective assistance of counsel in his penalty-phase proceedings when his lawyer failed to investigate and present available mitigating evidence that could have spared his life. The state post-conviction court conducted an evidentiary hearing, after which it denied relief, issuing a written order that explained the court's reasoning. Wilson then asked the Georgia Supreme Court for permission to appeal the order but the court summarily turned him down saying only that "it be hereby denied." Wilson next filed a habeas corpus petition asking the federal courts to review his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, arguing that, under the federal habeas statute, he was entitled to relief because the state court had unreasonably determined the facts and unreasonably applied the law when it rejected his claim. The federal district court agreed that Wilson had been ineffectively represented, but ruled against him nonetheless, deferring to the state court's conclusion that his trial counsel's failures had not been prejudicial. In an opinion that would have created a nearly insurmountable bar for a habeas petitioner to meet, the Eleventh Circuit held that federal courts should "not 'look through' a summary decision on the merits to review the reasoning of the lower state court," but should limit their review to whether any possible rationale could support the state appeals court judgment. The Supreme Court disagreed. Rather than adopting "an approach ... that would require a federal habeas court to imagine what might have been the state court’s supportive reasoning," Justice Breyer said that the habeas court should "look through" an unexplained state court decision on the merits and "presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning" as that employed by the lower court. That presumption, he wrote, may be rebutted if the state is able to show that the unexplained decision most likely rested on other grounds. The Court returned Wilson's case to the Eleventh Circuit with instructions to review his ineffectiveness claim under the correct standard. The ruling is the second time this Term the Court has sided with death-row prisoners on procedural issues affecting access to federal review of their cases. In March, the Court issued a ruling preserving indigent death-row prisoners' access to investigative funds "reasonably necessary" to develop their habeas corpus claims, overturning a ruling by the Fifth Circuit that had required habeas petitioners to meet a harsher standard.

(Ram Eachambadi, Supreme Court: federal habeas court should 'look through' unexplained state court judgment, Jurist, April 17, 2018;  Mariam Morshedi, Wilson v. Sellers, Subscript Law, April 17, 2018.) Read the Decision. See U.S. Supreme Court.