Williams v. Johnson: An obscure case will be handled the right way

A while back, I started following a cert petition in Williams v. Johnson, a habeas case presenting a somewhat troubling procedural technicality. (Prior posts here and here.) The Supreme Court had already heard and written an opinion in the case earlier, and the opinion addressed a procedural question — the standard of review on federal habeas for certain decisions from state court. The Court concluded that in general, state courts receive deference even when they do not explicitly address a legal issue, and that such deference was appropriate in Ms. Williams’s case.

Because the Ninth Circuit had not applied deference, one would expect the case to be remanded to them to apply the proper standard. And it would have been, but for one sentence in the introduction of the Court’s opinion, which said:

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.

That bolded part of the sentence is the only part of the Supreme Court’s opinion that discussed the merits of Ms. Williams’s case, but the Ninth Circuit concluded that it foreclosed them from considering her claim. I thought this was quite troubling — either the Court had inadvertently foreclosed review (perhaps through an editing error), or else the Court had intentionally foreclosed review with absolutely no explanation or legal reasoning.

But the Supreme Court’s cert. process worked. After Ms. Williams’s petition, the Court called for a response from the State (which I discussed here). It considered the petition at four successive conferences, and then today, on its final orders list of the term, it issued the following order:

PER CURIAM.
The motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is vacated, and the case is remanded for consideration of petitioner’s Sixth Amendment claim under the standard set forth in 28 U. S. C. §2254(d).
It is so ordered.

That means the case will at last be remanded to the Ninth Circuit to decide whether Ms. Williams’s constitutional claim meets the AEDPA standard. I do not have a view about what the right answer to this question is, though I think it is good and important that the question will now be handled in a procedurally sound way.

Congratulations are of course due to Steve Klepper and his co-counsel for getting a remand. But they are also due to the Court. It would have been easy to ignore the petition. I’m sure some of the Justices think the claims lack merit, and even if not, the Court often resists claims for “error correction” (although not always). And apart from that, it’s easy for a single IFP petition to slip through the cracks, given the press of petitions the justices and clerks have to deal with every year. Even Supreme Court nerd John Elwood called the case “a particularly tough slog.”

With all of the hubbub recently about mistakes in Supreme Court opinions, and with all of the usual term-end grousing about how the Court is too divided, or too conservative, or not conservative enough or too divided, the Court probably won’t get any credit for this kind of unglamorous, procedural ruling. But it should.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).

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