Johnson v. Williams

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation185 L.Ed.2d 105,133 S.Ct. 1088,568 U.S. 289
Docket NumberNo. 11–465.,11–465.
Parties Deborah K. JOHNSON, Acting Warden, Petitioner v. Tara Sheneva WILLIAMS.
Decision Date20 February 2013

Stephanie Brenan, Los Angeles, California, for Petitioner.

Kurt D. Hermansen, San Diego, California, for Respondent.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of California, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant, Attorney General, Lance E. Winters, Senior Assistant, Attorney General, Donald E. De Nicola, Deputy State Solicitor General, Lawrence M. Daniels, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Xiomara Costello, Deputy Attorney General, James William Bilderback II, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Stephanie C. Brenan, Deputy Attorney General, Los Angeles, California, for Petitioner.

Kurt David Hermansen, Law Office of Kurt David Hermansen, San Diego, California, Steven M. Klepper, Kramon & Graham, P.A., Baltimore, Maryland, for Respondent.

Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) restricts the circumstances under which a federal habeas court may grant relief to a state prisoner whose claim has already been "adjudicated on the merits in State court." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Specifically, if a claim has been "adjudicated on the merits in State court," a federal habeas court may not grant relief unless "the adjudication of the claim—

"(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
"(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." Ibid.

Because the requirements of § 2254(d) are difficult to meet, it is important whether a federal claim was "adjudicated on the merits in State court," and this case requires us to ascertain the meaning of the adjudication-on-the merits requirement. This issue arises when a defendant convicted in state court attempts to raise a federal claim, either on direct appeal or in a collateral state proceeding, and a state court rules against the defendant and issues an opinion that addresses some issues but does not expressly address the federal claim in question. If this defendant then raises the same claim in a federal habeas proceeding, should the federal court regard the claim as having been adjudicated on the merits by the state court and apply deference under § 2254(d) ? Or may the federal court assume that the state court simply overlooked the federal claim and proceed to adjudicate the claim de novo, the course taken by the Court of Appeals in the case at hand?

We believe that the answer to this question follows logically from our decision in Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011). In that case, we held that, when a state court issues an order that summarily rejects without discussion all the claims raised by a defendant, including a federal claim that the defendant subsequently presses in a federal habeas proceeding, the federal habeas court must presume (subject to rebuttal) that the federal claim was adjudicated on the merits. We see no reason why this same rule should not apply when the state court addresses some of the claims raised by a defendant but not a claim that is later raised in a federal habeas proceeding.

Applying this rule in the present case, we hold that the federal claim at issue here (a Sixth Amendment jury trial claim) must be presumed to have been adjudicated on the merits by the California courts, that this presumption was not adequately rebutted, that the restrictive standard of review set out in § 2254(d)(2) consequently applies, and that under that standard respondent is not entitled to habeas relief. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


In October 1993, respondent Tara Williams took two of her friends for a drive in southern California with the objective of committing a robbery. They stopped at a liquor store in Long Beach, and while Williams waited in the getaway car, her friends stole money from the cash register and fatally shot the store's owner. Williams then drove one of her friends away, and the other fled on foot. Williams avoided capture for five years but was ultimately apprehended and charged with first-degree murder.

At trial, Williams admitted that she had served as the getaway driver but claimed that she did not know that her friends were going to rob the liquor store at the particular time in question. Instead, she contended that the three friends had agreed only that they would "case" the store and would possibly return later that evening to rob it. The State countered that, regardless of whether Williams knew precisely when and where the robbery was to take place, she had agreed to help commit a robbery and that this was sufficient to provide the predicate for felony murder under California law.

After deliberating for about three hours, the jury foreman sent the judge two notes. The first note asked the following question:

" ‘Is it legally permissible for a juror to interpret ... the jury instructions to mean that the conspiracy should involve a plan to commit a specific robbery rather than a general plan to commit robberies in the future?’ " Tr. 1247.

The second note stated:

"I wish to inform you that we have one juror who ... has expressed an intention to disregard the law ... and ... has expressed concern relative to the severity of the charge (first degree murder)." Id., at 1246.

The judge told the jury that the answer to the question in the first note was "no." Id., at 1249. Then, over Williams' objection, the judge briefly questioned the foreman outside the presence of the rest of the jury about the second note. The foreman said that he thought the judge's answer to the first note might resolve the problem, and the judge instructed the jury to resume its deliberations.

The next morning, once again over Williams' objection, the judge decided to inquire further about the foreman's second note. On questioning by the judge and lawyers for both parties, the foreman testified that Juror 6 had brought up past instances of jury nullification. The foreman also expressed doubt about whether Juror 6 was willing to apply the felony-murder rule. The trial judge then ordered questioning of Juror 6, who first denied and then admitted bringing up instances of nullification. Juror 6 also testified that this was a serious case and that he would vote to convict only if he was "very convinced ... beyond a reasonable doubt." Id., at 1280. He later clarified that in his view "convinced beyond a reasonable doubt" and "very convinced beyond a reasonable doubt" meant the same thing. Id., at 1281. After taking testimony from the remaining jurors, who corroborated the foreman's testimony to varying degrees, the trial judge dismissed Juror 6 for bias. With an alternate juror in place, the jury convicted Williams of first-degree murder.


On appeal to the California Court of Appeal, Williams argued, among other things, that the discharge of Juror 6 violated both the Sixth Amendment and the California Penal Code, which allows a California trial judge to dismiss a juror who "upon ... good cause shown to the court is found to be unable to perform his or her duty." Cal.Penal Code Ann. § 1089 (West 2004). Although Williams' brief challenged the questioning and dismissal of Juror 6 on both state and federal grounds, it did not clearly distinguish between these two lines of authority.

In a written opinion affirming Williams' conviction, the California Court of Appeal devoted several pages to discussing the propriety of the trial judge's decision to dismiss the juror. People v. Taylor, No. B137365 (Mar. 27, 2001). The court held that Juror 6 had been properly dismissed for bias and quoted this Court's definition of "impartiality" in United States v. Wood, 299 U.S. 123, 145–146, 57 S.Ct. 177, 81 L.Ed. 78 (1936). But despite its extended discussion of Juror 6's dismissal and the questioning that preceded it, the California Court of Appeal never expressly acknowledged that it was deciding a Sixth Amendment issue.

Williams petitioned the California Supreme Court for review, and while her petition was pending, that court decided People v. Cleveland, 25 Cal.4th 466, 106 Cal.Rptr.2d 313, 21 P.3d 1225 (2001), which held that a trial court had abused its discretion by dismissing for failure to deliberate a juror who appeared to disagree with the rest of the jury about the evidence. The California Supreme Court granted Williams' petition for review and remanded her case for further consideration in light of this intervening authority. People v. Taylor, No. S097387 (July 11, 2001).

On remand, the California Court of Appeal issued a revised opinion holding that the trial court had not abused its discretion by questioning the jury and dismissing Juror 6. Williams argued that Juror 6—like the holdout juror in Cleveland —was dismissed because he was uncooperative with other jurors who did not share his view of the evidence. But the California Court of Appeal disagreed, explaining that Williams' argument "not only misstate[d] the evidence," but also "ignore[d] the trial court's explanation that it was discharging Juror No. 6 because he had shown himself to be biased, not because he was failing to deliberate or engaging in juror nullification." People v. Taylor, No. B137365 (Jan. 18, 2002), App. to Pet. for Cert. 105a. As in its earlier opinion, the California Court of Appeal quoted our definition of juror bias in Wood, but the court did not expressly acknowledge that Williams had invoked a federal basis for her argument. Despite that omission, however, Williams did not seek rehearing or otherwise suggest that the court had overlooked her federal claim. Instead, she filed another petition for review in the California Supreme Court, but this time...

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