Wilson v. Sellers, No. 16–6855.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation138 S.Ct. 1188,200 L.Ed.2d 530
Parties Marion WILSON, Petitioner v. Eric SELLERS, Warden.
Docket NumberNo. 16–6855.
Decision Date17 April 2018

138 S.Ct. 1188
200 L.Ed.2d 530

Marion WILSON, Petitioner
v.
Eric SELLERS, Warden.

No. 16–6855.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Oct. 30, 2017.
Decided April 17, 2018.


Mark E. Olive, Tallahassee, FL, for Petitioner.

Sarah Hawkins Warren, Atlanta, GA, for Respondent.

Autumn N. Nero, Perkins Coie LLP, David J. Harth, Madison, WI, Brian S. Kammer, Marcia A. Widder, Atlanta, GA, Mark E. Olive, Tallahassee, FL, John H. Blume, Cornell Law School, Ithaca, NY, for Petitioner.

Beth A. Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Sabrina D. Graham, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Christopher M. Carr, Attorney General of Georgia, Sarah Hawkins Warren, Solicitor General, Andrew A. Pinson, Deputy Solicitor General, Office of the Georgia Attorney General, Atlanta, GA, for Respondent.

Justice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) requires a prisoner who challenges (in a federal habeas court) a matter "adjudicated on the merits in State court" to show that the relevant state-court "decision" (1) "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law," or (2) "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Deciding whether a state court's decision "involved" an unreasonable application of federal law or "was based on" an unreasonable determination of fact requires the federal habeas court to "train its attention on the particular reasons—both legal and

138 S.Ct. 1192

factual—why state courts rejected a state prisoner's federal claims," Hittson v. Chatman, 576 U.S. ––––, ––––, 135 S.Ct. 2126, 2126, 192 L.Ed.2d 887 (2015) (GINSBURG, J., concurring in denial of certiorari), and to give appropriate deference to that decision, Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101–102, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011).

This is a straightforward inquiry when the last state court to decide a prisoner's federal claim explains its decision on the merits in a reasoned opinion. In that case, a federal habeas court simply reviews the specific reasons given by the state court and defers to those reasons if they are reasonable. We have affirmed this approach time and again. See, e.g., Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30, 39–44, 130 S.Ct. 447, 175 L.Ed.2d 398 (2009) (per curiam ); Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 388–392, 125 S.Ct. 2456, 162 L.Ed.2d 360 (2005) ; Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 523–538, 123 S.Ct. 2527, 156 L.Ed.2d 471 (2003).

The issue before us, however, is more difficult. It concerns how a federal habeas court is to find the state court's reasons when the relevant state-court decision on the merits, say, a state supreme court decision, does not come accompanied with those reasons. For instance, the decision may consist of a one-word order, such as "affirmed" or "denied." What then is the federal habeas court to do? We hold that the federal court should "look through" the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning. But 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.

I

In 1997 a Georgia jury convicted petitioner, Marion Wilson, of murder and related crimes. After a sentencing hearing, the jury sentenced Wilson to death. In 1999 the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Wilson's conviction and sentence, Wilson v. State, 271 Ga. 811, 525 S.E.2d 339 (1999), and this Court denied his petition for certiorari, Wilson v. Georgia, 531 U.S. 838, 121 S.Ct. 99, 148 L.Ed.2d 58 (2000).

Wilson then filed a petition for habeas corpus in a state court, the Superior Court for Butts County. Among other things, he claimed that his counsel was "ineffective" during his sentencing, in violation of the Sixth Amendment. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984) (setting forth "two components" of an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim: "that counsel's performance was deficient" and "that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense"). Wilson identified new evidence that he argued trial counsel should have introduced at sentencing, namely, testimony from various witnesses about Wilson's childhood and the impairment of the frontal lobe of Wilson's brain.

After a hearing, the state habeas court denied the petition in relevant part because it thought Wilson's evidence did not show that counsel was "deficient," and, in any event, counsel's failure to find and present the new evidence that Wilson offered had not prejudiced Wilson. Wilson v. Terry, No. 2001–v–38 (Super. Ct. Butts Cty., Ga., Dec. 1, 2008), App. 60–61. In the court's view, that was because the new evidence was "inadmissible on evidentiary grounds," was "cumulative of other testimony," or "otherwise would not have, in reasonable probability, changed the outcome

138 S.Ct. 1193

of the trial." Id., at 61. Wilson applied to the Georgia Supreme Court for a certificate of probable cause to appeal the state habeas court's decision. But the Georgia Supreme Court denied the application without any explanatory opinion. Wilson v. Terry, No. 2001–v–38 (May 3, 2010), App. 87, cert. denied, 562 U.S. 1093, 131 S.Ct. 799, 178 L.Ed.2d 534 (2010).

Wilson subsequently filed a petition for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. He made what was essentially the same "ineffective assistance" claim. After a hearing, the District Court denied Wilson's petition. Wilson v. Humphrey, No. 5:10–cv–489, 2013 WL 6795024 (Dec. 19, 2013), App. 88–89. The court assumed that Wilson's counsel had indeed been "deficient" in failing adequately to investigate Wilson's background and physical condition for mitigation evidence and to present what he likely would have found at the sentencing hearing. Id., at 144. But, the court nonetheless deferred to the state habeas court's conclusion that these deficiencies did not "prejudice" Wilson, primarily because the testimony of many witnesses was "cumulative," and because the evidence of physical impairments did not include any physical examination or other support that would have shown the state-court determination was "unreasonable." Id., at 187; see Richter, 562 U.S., at 111–112, 131 S.Ct. 770.

Wilson appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Wilson v. Warden, 774 F.3d 671 (2014). The panel first held that the District Court had used the wrong method for determining the reasoning of the relevant state court, namely, that of the Georgia Supreme Court (the final and highest state court to decide the merits of Wilson's claims). Id., at 678. That state-court decision, the panel conceded, was made without an opinion. But, the federal court was wrong to "look through" that decision and assume that it rested on the grounds given in the lower court's decision. Instead of "looking through" the decision to the state habeas court's opinion, the federal court should have asked what arguments "could have supported" the Georgia Supreme Court's refusal to grant permission to appeal. The panel proceeded to identify a number of bases that it believed reasonably could have supported the decision. Id., at 678–681.

The Eleventh Circuit then granted Wilson rehearing en banc so that it could consider the matter of methodology. Wilson v. Warden, 834 F.3d 1227 (2016). Ultimately six judges (a majority) agreed with the panel and held that its "could have supported" approach was correct. Id., at 1235. Five dissenting judges believed that the District Court should have used the methodology it did use, namely, the "look through" approach. Id., at 1242–1247, 1247–1269. Wilson then sought certiorari here. Because the Eleventh Circuit's opinion creates a split among the Circuits, we granted the petition. Compare id., at 1285 (applying "could have supported" approach), with Grueninger v. Director, Va. Dept. of Corrections, 813 F.3d 517, 525–526 (C.A.4 2016) (applying "look through" presumption post-Richter ), and Cannedy v. Adams, 706 F.3d 1148, 1156–1159 (C.A.9 2013) (same); see also Clements v. Clarke, 592 F.3d 45, 52 (C.A.1 2010) (applying "look through" presumption pre-Richter ); Bond v. Beard, 539 F.3d 256, 289–290 (C.A.3 2008) (same); Mark v. Ault, 498 F.3d 775, 782–783 (C.A.8 2007) (same); Joseph v. Coyle, 469 F.3d 441, 450 (C.A.6 2006) (same).

II

We conclude that federal habeas law employs a "look through" presumption.

138 S.Ct. 1194

That conclusion has parallels in this Court's precedent. In Ylst v. Nunnemaker, a defendant, convicted in a California state court of murder, appealed his conviction to the state appeals court where he raised a constitutional claim based on Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). 501 U.S. 797, 799–800, 111 S.Ct. 2590, 115 L.Ed.2d 706 (1991). The appeals court rejected that claim, writing that " ‘an objection based upon a Miranda violation cannot be raised for the first time on appeal.’ " Id....

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    ...provide a relevant rationale," and "should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning." Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). The state can "rebut the presumption by showing that the unexplained affirmance relied or most likely did rely on different gro......
  • Buttolph v. Adams, 1:18-cv-2370
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    ...presumption that the higher court adopted the same reasoning as that set forth by the lower court. Wilson v. Sellers, — U.S. —, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). "[B]ecause the purpose of AEDPA is to ensure that federal habeas reliefPage 28 functions as a guard against extreme malfunctions in t......
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    ...does provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning.Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). The presumption may be rebutted by showing that the higher state court's adjudication most likely relied on different grounds t......
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    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • November 19, 2018
    ...provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning.Page 8 Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). The presumption may be rebutted by showing that the higher state court's adjudication most likely relied on different grounds......
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1616 cases
  • McWhorter v. Dunn, Case No. 4:13-CV-02150-RDP
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Alabama
    • January 22, 2019
    ...provide a relevant rationale," and "should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning." Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). The state can "rebut the presumption by showing that the unexplained affirmance relied or most likely did rely on different gro......
  • Buttolph v. Adams, 1:18-cv-2370
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • September 10, 2020
    ...presumption that the higher court adopted the same reasoning as that set forth by the lower court. Wilson v. Sellers, — U.S. —, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). "[B]ecause the purpose of AEDPA is to ensure that federal habeas reliefPage 28 functions as a guard against extreme malfunctions in t......
  • Lewis v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., Case No. 3:17-cv-468-J-34JBT
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • May 28, 2020
    ...does provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning.Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). The presumption may be rebutted by showing that the higher state court's adjudication most likely relied on different grounds t......
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    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • November 19, 2018
    ...provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning.Page 8 Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). The presumption may be rebutted by showing that the higher state court's adjudication most likely relied on different grounds......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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