Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act - Habeas Corpus - Scope of Review of State Proceedings - Wilson V. Sellers

Harvard Law Review, November 2018 | Go to article overview

Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act - Habeas Corpus - Scope of Review of State Proceedings - Wilson V. Sellers


In 1996, riding a wave of public opinion after the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (1) (AEDPA). (2) Among other things, AEDPA heightened the standard a federal habeas court must use when reviewing a state prisoner's claim already "adjudicated on the merits in State court." (3) Instead of de novo review, the amended 28 U.S.C. [section] 2254(d) requires these claims to be dismissed unless the state adjudication "resulted in a decision that" either is "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law" or is "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." (4) The Supreme Court has interpreted these provisions to require significant deference to even incorrect state court rulings. (5)

Prior to AEDPA, the Court in Ylst v. Nunnemaker (6) considered a case where state habeas courts had affirmed without opinion a state court's direct-review denial of a petitioner's claim on grounds of a state procedural default. (7) The Ylst Court held that federal courts should "look through the subsequent unexplained denials [of habeas] to [the direct-review] opinion" (8) and employ a presumption, rebuttable by "strong evidence" to the contrary, (9) "that a later decision rejecting the claim did not silently disregard that [procedural] bar and consider the merits." (10) But after AEDPA, the Court in Harrington v. Richter (11) considered a case where there was only a one-sentence summary order accompanying a state high court decision and no opinion below. (12) The Richter Court held that the unexplained state high court decision rejecting a petitioner's claim was a decision on the merits for [section] 2254(d) purposes (13) and that a federal court must deny a petitioner's appeal of that summary decision unless it had "determine[d] what arguments or theories supported or ... could have supported[] the state court's decision" (14) and found that "there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief." (15) Left unanswered was whether a Ylst-like presumption applied in [section] 2254(d) cases where there was a reasoned state lower court opinion below a summary denial.

Last Term, in Wilson v. Sellers, (16) the Supreme Court answered that question in the affirmative. Settling a circuit split, (17) the Court sided with habeas petitioner Wilson, holding that federal courts reviewing state prisoners' habeas claims under [section] 2254(d) should "look through" to the last reasoned state court decision and apply a rebuttable presumption that the unexplained affirmance "adopted the same reasoning." (18) Justice Gorsuch asserted in dissent that Wilson adopted a watered-down presumption that effectively allows courts to apply Richter's harsh practice of imagining any possible basis for denying relief. But the majority opinion in Wilson both explicitly and implicitly indicated that federal courts should continue to apply a strong presumption that the unexplained decision adopted the lower court's reasoning. In doing so, Wilson likely restricted Richter's practice of hypothesizing bases to Richter's specific procedural posture--that is, to cases where there is no reasoned opinion by any state habeas court--thus limiting the heavy and unnecessary burden this practice places on habeas petitioners.

Marion Wilson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a Georgia jury in 1997. (19) After exhausting his direct appeals, (20) Wilson filed a petition in a Georgia state habeas court, claiming, inter alia, ineffective assistance of trial counsel under the federal constitutional standard. (21) The state habeas court denied Wilson's ineffective assistance claim on the merits after a hearing, explaining its reasoning in an opinion. (22) The Supreme Court of Georgia denied Wilson's appeal without opinion, and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. (23)

Wilson next filed a habeas petition in the U. …

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