Death Row Inmate’s Habeas Review Argument Wins at High Court (1)

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By Jordan S. Rubin and Alisa Johnson

An inmate’s argument won out at the U.S. Supreme Court April 17 in a case about what method to use when reviewing inmates’ appeals.

A federal court conducting habeas corpus review of an unexplained state-court decision in most cases should “look through” to the last reasoned decision, presuming that the unexplained decision adopted the reasoning of the prior decision, the court said in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

“This approach is more likely to respect what the state court actually did, and easier to apply in practice, than to ask the federal court to substitute for silence the federal court’s thought as to more supportive reasoning,” the court said.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, dissenting and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., said although the majority made the wrong decision it trimmed Wilson’s arguments so much that it gave him very little and mostly just created more work for both federal and state courts.

State courts may feel forced to state whether or not they are adopting the lower court’s reasoning, and federal courts face “a future of foraging through presumptions and rebuttals,” he said.

The court’s decision “is one of complication not consequence,” Adam K. Mortara, of Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP, told Bloomberg Law.

“The only way a state prisoner can qualify for habeas relief is if, in fact, the state court reasoning is unreasonable and thus the presumption announced does no work at all—the prisoner either loses because the lower state court was reasonable, or the test [reversed here] will apply because the presumption has been rebutted,” he added in echoing the dissent.

Mortara filed an amicus brief in support of the warden.

Timothy P. O’Toole and Sarah A. Dowd of Miller & Chevalier told to Bloomberg Law in a joint statement that “the decision gives individuals the chance to challenge the state court’s actual reasoning—rather than allowing a federal court to act as though the state adjudication never happened.” O’Toole and Dowd submitted an amicus brief in support of Wilson.

Rebuttable Presumption

But the presumption that the earlier court’s reasoning was adopted is rebuttable if the state can show the most recent decision relied or most likely did rely on different grounds than the lower state court’s decision, the court said.

Marion Wilson’s post-conviction motion claiming ineffective assistance was denied in a detailed Georgia lower state court opinion. The state Supreme Court denied his application to appeal it in a one-sentence decision that didn’t explain its reasoning.

The question here was which state court decision the federal habeas court should evaluate—the detailed one from the lower state court or the unexplained state Supreme Court decision.

Wilson argued the detailed opinions should be the ones that count, because otherwise federal habeas courts can just conjure up any reason to deny claims rather than review them.

Wilson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He claimed in Georgia Superior Court that he received ineffective assistance of counsel during sentencing. That court denied relief, saying counsel’s performance was not deficient. The Georgia Supreme Court summarily denied the appeal with no explanation.

Mark Evan Olive of Tallahassee, Fla., represented Wilson. Sarah Hawkins Warren represented the state.

The case is Wilson v. Sellers , 2018 BL 134085, U.S., No. 16-6855, 4/17/18 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at and Alisa Johnson at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

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