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CRS Annotated Constitution

Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Supreme Court Review of State Court Decisions.—In addition to the constitutional issues presented by 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 and subsequent enactments,717 questions have continued to arise concerning review of state court judgments which go directly to the nature and extent of the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction. Because of the sensitivity of federal–state relations and the delicate nature of the matters presented in litigation touching upon them, jurisdiction to review decisions of a state court is dependent in its exercise not only upon ascertainment of the existence of a federal question but upon a showing of exhaustion of state remedies and of the finality of the state judgment. Because the application of these standards to concrete facts is neither mechanical nor nondiscretionary, the Justices have often been divided[p.724]whether these requisites to the exercise of jurisdiction have been met in specific cases submitted for review by the Court.

The Court is empowered to review the judgments of “the highest court of a State in which a decision could be had.”718 This will ordinarily be the State’s court of last resort, but it could well be an intermediate appellate court or even a trial court if its judgment is final under state law and cannot be reviewed by any state appellate court.719 The review is of a final judgment below. “It must be subject to no further review or correction in any other state tribunal; it must also be final as an effective determination of the litigation and not of merely interlocutory or intermediate steps therein. It must be the final word of a final court.”720 The object of this rule is to avoid piecemeal interference with state court proceedings; it promotes harmony by preventing federal assumption of a role in a controversy until the state court efforts are finally resolved.721 For similar reasons, the Court requires that a party seeking to litigate a federal constitutional issue on appeal of a state court judgment must have raised that issue with sufficient precision to have enabled the state court to have considered it and she must have raised the issue at the appropriate time below.722

When the judgment of a state court rests on an adequate, independent determination of state law, the Court will not review the resolution of the federal questions decided, even though the resolution may be in error.723 “The reason is so obvious that it has rarely been thought to warrant statement. It is found in the partitioning[p.725]of power between the state and Federal judicial systems and in the limitations of our own jurisdiction. Our only power over state judgments is to correct them to the extent that they incorrectly adjudge federal rights. And our power is to correct wrong judgments, not to revise opinions. We are not permitted to render an advisory opinion, and if the same judgment would be rendered by the state court after we corrected its views of Federal laws, our review could amount to nothing more than an advisory opinion.”724 The Court is faced with two interrelated decisions: whether the state court judgment is based upon a nonfederal ground and whether the nonfederal ground is adequate to support the state court judgment. It is, of course, the responsibility of the Court to determine for itself the answer to both questions.725

The first question may be raised by several factual situations. A state court may have based its decision on two grounds, one federal, one nonfederal.726 It may have based its decision solely on a nonfederal ground but the federal ground may have been clearly raised.727 Both federal and nonfederal grounds may have been raised but the state court judgment is ambiguous or is without written opinion stating the ground relied on.728 Or the state court may have decided the federal question although it could have based its ruling on an adequate, independent nonfederal ground.729 In any event, it is essential for purposes of review by the Supreme Court that it appear from the record that a federal question was presented, that the disposition of that question was necessary to the determination of the case, that the federal question was actually decided or that the judgment could not have been rendered without deciding it.730

[p.726]

With regard to the second question, in order to preclude Supreme Court review, the nonfederal ground must be broad enough, without reference to the federal question, to sustain the state court judgment,731 the nonfederal ground must be independent of the federal question,732 and the nonfederal ground must be a tenable one.733 Rejection of a litigant’s federal claim by the state court on state procedural grounds, such as failure to tender the issue at the appropriate time, will ordinarily preclude Supreme Court review as an adequate independent state ground,734 so long as the local procedure does not discriminate against the raising of federal claims and has not been used to stifle a federal claim or to evade vindication of federal rights.735


Footnotes

717 On Sec. 25, see supra. The present statute is 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1257 (a), which provides that review by writ of certiorari is available where the validity of a treaty or statute of the United States is drawn in question or where the validity of a statute of any State is drawn in question on the ground of its being repugnant to the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, or where any title, right, privilege, or immunity is specially set up or claimed under the Constitution or the treaties or statutes of, or any commission held or authority exercised under, the United States. Prior to 1988, there was a right to mandatory appeal in cases in which a state court had found invalid a federal statute or treaty or in which a state court had upheld a state statute contested under the Constitution, a treaty, or a statute of the United States. See the Act of June 25, 1948, 62 Stat. 929 . The distinction between certiorari and appeal was abolished by the Act of June 27, 1988, P.L. 100–352, Sec. 3, 102 Stat. 662 .
718 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1257 (a). See R. Stern & E. Gressman, Supreme Court Practice (Washington; 6th ed. 1986), ch. 3.
719 Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45, 47 (1935); Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 62 (1960); Thompson v. City of Louisville, 362 U.S. 199, 202 (1960); Metlakatla Indian Community v. Egan, 363 U.S. 555 (1960); Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 516, 517 (1968); Koon v. Aiken, 480 U.S. 943 (1987). In Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. (19 U.S.) 264 (1821), the judgment reviewed was that of the Quarterly Session Court for the Borough of Norfolk, Virginia.
720 Market Street R. Co., v. Railroad Comm., 324 U.S. 548, 551 (1945). See also San Diego Gas & Electric Co. v. City of San Diego, 450 U.S. 621 (1981); Flynt v. Ohio, 451 U.S. 619 (1981); Minnick v. California Dept. of Corrections, 452 U.S. 105 (1981). In recent years, however, the Court has developed a series of exceptions permitting review when the federal issue in the case has been finally determined but there are still proceedings in the lower state courts to come. Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 476–487 (1975). See also Fort Wayne Books v. Indiana, 489 U.S. 46, 53–57 (1989); Duquesne Light Co. v. Barasch, 488 U.S. 299, 304 (1989); NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 907 n. 42 (1982).
721 Republic Natural Gas Co. v. Oklahoma, 334 U.S. 62, 67–69 (1948); Radio Station WOW v. Johnson, 326 U.S. 120, 123–124 (1945).
722 New York ex rel. Bryant v. Zimmerman, 278 U.S. 63, 67 (1928); See also Bankers Life & Casualty Co. v. Crenshaw, 486 U.S. 71. 77 (1988); Webb v. Webb, 451 U.S. 493, 501 (1981). The same rule applies on habeas corpus petitions. E.g., Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270 (1972).
723 Murdock v. City of Memphis, 20 Wall. (87 U.S.) 590 (1874); Black v. Cutter Laboratories, 351 U.S. 292 (1956); Wilson v. Loew’s, Inc., 355 U.S. 597 (1958).
724 Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117, 125–126 (1945).
725 E.g., Howlett by Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 366 (1990); NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 455 (1958).
726 Fox Film Corp. v. Muller, 296 U.S. 207 (1935); Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961).
727 Wood v. Chesborough, 228 U.S. 672, 676–680 (1913).
728 Lynch v. New York ex rel. Pierson, 293 U.S. 52, 54–55 (1934); Williams v. Kaiser, 323 U.S. 471, 477 (1945); Durley v. Mayo, 351 U.S. 277, 281 (1956); Klinger v. Missouri, 13 Wall. (80 U.S.) 257, 263 (1872); cf. Department of Mental Hygiene v. Kirchner, 380 U.S. 194 (1965).
729 Poafpybitty v. Skelly Oil Co., U.S. 365, 375–376 (1968).
730 Southwestern Bell Tel. Co. v. Oklahoma, 303 U.S. 206 (1938); Raley v. Ohio, 360 U.S. 423, 434–437 (1959). When there is uncertainty about what the state court did, the usual practice was to remand for clarification. Minnesota v. National Tea Co., 309 U.S. 551 (1940); California v. Krivda, 409 U.S. 33 (1972). See California Dept. of Motor Vehicles v. Rios, 410 U.S. 425 (1973). Now, however, in a controversial decision, the Court has adopted a presumption that when a state court decision fairly appears to rest on federal law or to be interwoven with federal law, and when the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion the Court will accept as the most reasonable explanation that the state court decided the case as it did because it believed that federal law required it to do so. If the state court wishes to avoid the presumption it must make clear by a plain statement in its judgment or opinion that discussed federal law did not compel the result, that state law was dispositive. Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983). See Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 261 n. 7 (1989) (collecting cases); Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991) (applying the rule in a habeas case).
731 Murdock v. City of Memphis, 20 Wall. (87 U.S.) 590, 636 (1874). A new state rule cannot be invented for the occasion in order to defeat the federal claim. E.g., Ford v. Georgia, 498 U.S. 411, 420–425 (1991)
732 Enterprise Irrigation District v. Farmers’ Mutual Canal Co., 243 U.S. 157, 164 (1917); Ivanhoe Irrigation District v. McCracken, 357 U.S. 275, 290 (1958).
733 Enterprise Irrigation District v. Farmers’ Mutual Canal Co., 243 U.S. 157, 164 (1917); Ward v. Love County, 253 U.S. 17. 22 (1920); Staub v. Baxley, 355 U.S. 313, 319–320 (1958).
734 Nickel v. Cole, 256 U.S. 222, 225 (1921); Wolfe v. North Carolina, 364 U.S. 177, 195 (1960). But see Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22 (1923); Brown v. Western Ry. of Alabama, 338 U.S. 294 (1949).
735 Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22, 24–25 (1923); NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 455–458 (1958); Barr v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 146, 149 (1964). This rationale probably explains Henry v. Mississippi, 379 U.S. 443 (1965). See also in the criminal area, Edelman v. Califonia, 344 U.S. 357, 362 (1953) (dissenting opinion); Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 554 (1953) (dissenting opinion); Williams v. Georgia, 349 U.S. 375, 383 (1955); Monger v. Florida, 405 U.S. 958 (1972) (dissenting opinion).
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