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Name: Wilson v. Sellers
Case #: 16-6855
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 04/17/2018
Subsequent History: 138 S.Ct. 1188

A federal habeas court reviewing an unexplained state court decision on the merits should “look through” to the last reasoned decision and presume the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning, unless the State rebuts the presumption. In this death case, Wilson sought habeas relief in the Georgia Superior Court on ineffective assistance of counsel grounds. The superior court denied his petition, finding no deficient performance and no prejudice. Wilson sought a certificate of probable cause to appeal the decision, which the Georgia Supreme Court denied without explanation. On federal habeas review, the district court deferred to the state superior court’s prejudice determination and denied relief. The Eleventh Circuit held the district court should not have “looked through” the state supreme court’s decision and assumed that it rested on the same grounds as the superior court decision, but instead should have asked what arguments “could have supported” the state supreme court’s summary decision. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Reversed and remanded. Ylst v. Nunnemaker (1991) 501 U.S. 797 established the “look through” presumption in federal habeas proceedings: “[w]here 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.” However, a later case, Harrington v. Richter (2011) 562 U.S. 86, explained that, where a state court’s decision does not include an explanation, a habeas petitioner still has the burden under AEDPA to show there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief. The court here distinguished Richter (where there was no lower court opinion to look to) and concluded that federal habeas law employs a “look though” presumption. The State “may rebut the presumption by showing that the unexplained affirmance relied or most likely did rely on different grounds than the lower state 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.” [Editor’s Note: Justice Gorsuch filed a dissent, which Justices Thomas and Alito joined, arguing the federal habeas statute does not permit a “look through” presumption but requires that federal habeas courts presume that a state supreme court’s summary denial rests on any reasonable basis the law and facts allow. The dissent agreed with the State’s argument that Ylst is limited to cases in which the federal habeas court is trying to determine whether an unexplained state court decision rested on state procedural grounds versus the merits of a federal issue.]

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: