In Wilson v. Sellers, 584 U.S. ___ (2018), the Supreme Court addressed the issue of how federal courts should handle habeas petitions where the state appellate court merely summarily affirmed or denied a lower court ruling without a reasoned opinion. The Court, in a 6-3 ruling, held that, in such cases, federal courts must “look through” to the lower court’s ruling and are entitled to presume that the state appellate court adopted that ruling and the reasoning behind it. As Justice Breyer, writing for the majority explained, this “look through” approach was consistent with the Court’s holding in Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U. S. 797 (1991) where federal courts “look through” unreasoned state appellate opinions to determine if the claim at issue was decided on an independent state law ground. However, Ylst only creates a “presumption” that the appellate court adopted the lower court’s reasoning and that presumption can be rebutted where, for example, “convincing alternative arguments for affirmance” were made to the state appellate court.
The impact of Wilson will likely be limited. As Justice Breyer noted, every circuit except the Eleventh Circuit already applied a “look through” presumption. Nonetheless, by confirming that the Ylst presumption applies more broadly than to the question of whether a claim was decided on an independent state law ground, the Court has confirmed that federal courts can evaluate the merits of a federal claim even if the state appellate court did not provide a reasoned opinion.
In some cases, this might open up additional claims that a client can raise in federal court. In an era in which federal review of state habeas petitions is limited, the ability to raise such claims can make the difference between success and failure.
If you have any questions about post-conviction litigation, please contact Andrew Horne at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 374-9791.
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