Justices Set Standard for Habeas Review of Unexplained Decisions

(CN) – A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday held that when a federal habeas court is tasked with a reviewing an unexplained state-court decision, it should look to last related ruling that provides a rationale and presume the latter court adopted that reasoning as its own.

The case that raised the habeas issue came to the high court from the 11th Circuit, and involved a Georgia inmate, Marion Wilson, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

As recounted in court documents, Wilson and co-defendant Robert Earl Butts approached state prison guard Donovan Parks in a Milledgeville, Georgia Wal-Mart parking lot in 1996 and asked him for a ride.

Parks invited the two men into his car, but a short time later, they forced him to the side of a residential street where they killed him with a sawed-off shotgun blast to the head.

Wilson was convicted of malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery, hijacking a motor vehicle and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

A jury sentenced him to death, due to the aggravating circumstance of the murder occurring during a robbery. The sentence was later affirmed by the Georgia Supreme Court.

But Wilson appealed, arguing his trial had been tainted by ineffective counsel. The federal court in Atlanta upheld Wilson’s death sentence, prompting him to appeal to the 11th Circuit.

Here the case took a turn. The appeals court had to decide which of two lower court rulings it would consider when deciding the merits of Wilson’s appeal: the short, summary opinion from the Georgia Supreme Court or a far more detailed ruling handed down by a state superior court judge. The appeals court brought in an independent attorney to argue the merits of adopting the state Supreme Court summary, and ultimately decided to do so.

Wilson’s attorney’s filed their petition for a writ of certiorari three months later.

In the ruling handed down Tuesday, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court majority, acknowledged the difficult issues raised by the case, but concluded “that federal habeas law employs a ‘look through’ presumption.”

To explain the majority’s position, Breyer pointed to late Justice Antonin Scalia’s ruling in Ylst v. Nunnemaker, in which the court said,  “where there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same claim rest upon the same ground.”

“Since Ylst, every Circuit to have considered the matter has applied this presumption,” Breyer said, adding a state can always rebut the presumption “by showing that the unexplained affirmance relied or most likely did rely on different grounds that the lower court’s decision, such as alternative grounds for affirmance that were briefed or argued to the state supreme court or obvious in the record it reviewed.”

Breyer was joined in the majority by Chief Justice john Roberts, and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonya Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

But Justice Neil Gorsuch disagreed, insisting the statute governing federal habeas review permit no such “look through” presumption, and “nor do traditional principles of appellate review.”

“In fact, we demand the opposite presumption for our work — telling readers that we independently review each case and that our summary affirmances may be read only as signaling agreement with a lower court’s judgment and not necessarily its reasons,” Gorsuch wrote.

“Because I can discern no good reason to treat the work of our state court colleagues with less respect than we demand for our own, I would reject petitioner’s presumption and must respectfully dissent.”

Gorsuch was joined in his dissent by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

On a related note, Georgia State Attorney General Chris Carr announced Monday that Robert Earl Butts is scheduled to die on May 3 at the state prison in Jackson.

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