Supreme Court Review of State Court Decisions
Article III, Section 2, Clause 2:
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
In addition to the constitutional issues presented by § 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 and subsequent enactments,1 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 over 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.” 2 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 f reviewed by any state appellate court.3 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.” 4 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.5 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.6
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.7 “The reason is so obvious that it has rarely been thought to warrant statement. It is found in the partitioning 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.” 8 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.9
The first question, whether there is a nonfederal ground, may be raised by several factual situations. A state court may have based its decision on two grounds, one federal, one nonfederal.10 It may have based its decision solely on a nonfederal ground but the federal ground may have been clearly raised.11 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.12 Or the state court may have decided the federal question although it could have based its ruling on an adequate, independent non-federal ground.13 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.14
Several factors affect the answer to the second question, whether the nonfederal ground is adequate. 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;15 it must be independent of the federal question;16 and it must be tenable.17 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,18 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.19
- On § 25, see “Judicial Review and National Supremacy,” supra. The present statute is 28 U.S.C. § 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, Pub. L. No. 100-352, § 3, 102 Stat. 662.
- 28 U.S.C. § 1257(a). See R. Stern & E. Gressman, Supreme Court Practice ch. 3 (6th ed. 1986).
- 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. 514, 516, 517 (1968); Koon v. Aiken, 480 U.S. 943 (1987). In Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264 (1821), the judgment reviewed was that of the Quarterly Session Court for the Borough of Norfolk, Virginia.
- Market Street Ry. v. Railroad Comm’n, 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 Dep’t of Corrections, 452 U.S. 105 (1981); Florida v. Thomas, 532 U.S. 774 (2001). 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 to come in the lower state courts. Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 476–487 (1975). See also Fort Wayne Books, Inc. v. Indiana, 489 U.S. 46 (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).
- Republic Natural Gas Co. v. Oklahoma, 334 U.S. 62, 67–69 (1948); Radio Station WOW v. Johnson, 326 U.S. 120, 123–24 (1945).
- 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).
- Murdock v. City of Memphis, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 590 (1875); Black v. Cutter Laboratories, 351 U.S. 292 (1956); Wilson v. Loew's, Inc., 355 U.S. 597 (1958).
- Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117, 125–26 (1945). Whereas declining to review judgments of state courts that rest on an adequate and independent determination of state law protects the sovereignty of states, the Court has emphasized that review of state court decisions that invalidate state laws based on interpretations of federal law, “far from undermining state autonomy, is the only way to vindicate it” because a correction of a state court’s federal errors necessarily returns power to the state government. See Kansas v. Carr, 577 U.S. ___, No. 14-449, slip op. at 9 (2016)AN (quoting Kansas v. Marsh, 548 U.S. 163, 184 (2006) (Scalia, J., concurring)).
- E.g., Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 366 (1990); NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 455 (1958).
- Fox Film Corp. v. Muller, 296 U.S. 207 (1935); Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961).
- Wood v. Chesborough, 228 U.S. 672, 676–80 (1913).
- 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, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 257, 263 (1872); cf. Department of Mental Hygiene v. Kirchner, 380 U.S. 194 (1965).
- Poafpybitty v. Skelly Oil Co., 390 U.S. 365, 375–376 (1968).
- 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).
- Murdock v. City of Memphis, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 590, 636 (1875). 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).
- Enterprise Irrigation Dist. v. Farmers' Mutual Canal Co., 243 U.S. 157, 164 (1917); Ivanhoe Irrigation Dist. v. McCracken, 357 U.S. 275, 290 (1958).
- Enterprise Irrigation Dist. v. Farmers' Mutual Canal Co., 243 U.S. 157, 164 (1917); Ward v. Love County, 253 U.S. 17, 22 (1920); Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313 (1958).
- Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. ___, No. 08-992, slip op. (2009) (firmly established procedural rule adequate state ground even though rule is discretionary). Accord, Walker v. Martin, 562 ___, No. 09-996, slip op. (2010). See also 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).
- 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. California, 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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