Johnson v. Williams

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Johnson v. Williams.


Whether an issue not addressed in a state court opinion has been “adjudicated on the merits” for the purposes of federal habeas corpus review when the state court gave a detailed opinion mentioning other claims but apparently ignored the constitutional grounds for relief.

Oral argument: 
October 3, 2012

Tara Williams was on trial in California state court for special circumstances murder and firearm enhancement. During the trial, over Williams’s objections, the court dismissed a juror on the grounds that he was biased against the prosecution. After an alternate replaced the dismissed juror, the jury convicted Williams on both counts. Williams appealed, claiming that the juror’s dismissal had violated California state law as well as her Sixth Amendment rights. The California Court of Appeals affirmed Williams’ conviction, but only did so by addressing her state law claims, ultimately failing to explicitly discuss the Sixth Amendment issues raised. Williams then filed a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 alleging a violation of her Sixth Amendment rights. Though the federal district court denied her petition, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that Williams’ Sixth Amendment claim had not yet been “adjudicated on the merits” within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Warden Deborah K. Johnson appealed, claiming that the California Court of Appeals’ prior ruling was an adjudication on the merits and therefore precluded the subsequent habeas petition. How the Supreme Court decides the case will determine the degree of deference a federal court hearing a petition for habeas corpus will give a state court decision that does not explicitly address the federal grounds for relief.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether a habeas petitioner's claim has been “adjudicated on the merits” for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) where the state court denied relief in an explained decision but did not expressly acknowledge a federal-law basis for the claim.


In October 1993, Petitioner Tara Williams, drove two friends to various stores in preparation for a robbery that they had planned to commit that evening. At one of the stops, one of Williams’ friends, Carde Taylor, shot and killed the owner of a liquor store in the course of a robbery. Williams, in the car at the time of the murder, later admitted that she knew Taylor was armed but claimed she did not know Taylor intended to rob any store during their initial trip. At trial, Williams was found guilty of special circumstances murder and firearm enhancement and sentenced to life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole.

Two days into deliberations, the jury foreman in Williams’ trial sent two notes to the court suggesting that one of the jurors, Juror No. 6 ("the Juror"), was behaving in a manner that a court could interpret as misconduct. When questioned, the foreman noted the Juror’s specific statements, including discussions about civil disobedience in historical criminal trials as well as the need for a higher standard of proof requirement because of the severity of the charge. The foreman also reported that the Juror had tried to explain his reservations about voting for conviction to the other jurors and they did not understand his logic.

Under direct questioning, the Juror stated that none of the jurors had considered the possibility that Williams could receive the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Juror also told the court that he had not been using a high burden of proof for the crime, as the foreman had suggested during his questioning. He further specified that if a juror has reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant, that juror, by law, must vote to acquit.

As a result of the Juror’s responses, the Prosecution sought his removal from the jury. The court agreed that it appeared that the Juror was holding the State to a higher burden of proof than was required by law and, after questioning the other ten jurors, dismissed the Juror, citing his bias towards the defendant premised on his discussion of a higher burden of proof. The following day, the Court replaced the Juror with an alternate and Williams was ultimately found guilty on both counts.

Williams filed an appeal in the California Court of Appeal, claiming that removal of the Juror at trial was a violation of the California Code and her Sixth Amendment rights. After a decision affirming the conviction, Williams brought suit before the California Supreme Court, which eventually remanded the case for reconsideration following its adjudication of People v. Cleveland. On remand, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling for a second time, reiterating their argument that the Juror had proved himself to be biased and thus, removal was lawful and required. Importantly, the Court of Appeals’ opinion did not address Williams’ claim that dismissal of the Juror was a violation of her Sixth Amendment rights. Williams then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, claiming that her Sixth Amendment rights had been violated when the Juror was dismissed. After a ruling in Williams’ favor from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on the grounds that the Sixth Amendment claim had not been “adjudicated on the merits” for the purposes of a habeas corpus petition, Petitioner Deborah K. Johnson, the Warden of the prison where Williams is being held, acted on behalf of the State and appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted a writ of certiorari.


The dispute in this case centers around whether a constitutional issue raised in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus has already been adjudicated on the merits when a state court has denied a direct appeal of a criminal conviction made on both state-law and federal constitutional grounds but, despite writing an opinion, failed to address the constitutional issue raised in the appeal. This question is important because under AEDPA, a petition for a writ of habeas corpus may not be granted for a claim that has been adjudicated on the merits unless that adjudication is contrary to “clearly established Federal law” or unreasonable in light of the evidence. In addition to defining adjudication on the merits in situations like this, the outcome of this case may impact the relationship between state and federal courts.

Adjudication on the Merits

Both sides cite heavily to a 2011 Supreme Court decision, Harrington v. Richter. In that case, the Court held that a decision by a state court unaccompanied by a written explanation may still serve as an adjudication on the merits for AEDPA purposes. Indeed, nothing in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) requires a statement of reasons accompanying a decision.

Respondent Williams argues that a determination of whether a federal claim has been adjudicated on the merits is best accomplished by a case-by-case analysis of the state court’s actual opinion. This method, according to Williams, has been historically successful and need not be altered. In the present case, where the Ninth Circuit found no analysis, direct or indirect, of the Sixth Amendment claim, it would be “illogical” to conclude that that claim had been adjudicated on the merits. Williams argues that Richter’s analysis, “by its own terms,” applies only to summary court orders. Thus, Williams argues that the state appellate court’s decision falls outside of the purview of Richter because it was accompanied by an explanation. However, even assuming that Richter’s analysis does apply to decisions accompanied by explanations, Williams argues that a habeas court must look to content of the state court’s opinion for clues as to whether the federal claim was actually adjudicated on the merits. To support its assertion, Williams cites to a line of cases holding that “AEDPA deference does not apply to the unadjudicated portion of a two-prong federal claim.” For example, Williams notes Cone v. Bell, which “held that a completely unadjudicated claim is entitled to de novo review.” Taken together, Williams argues, a federal claim overlooked by a state court decision (which Williams argues is the “more likely” explanation in this case) should be reviewed anew. Similarly, NACDL calls it “common sense” to conclude that a court that fails to address a properly brought federal claim cannot be presumed to have adjudicated that claim.

Petitioner Johnson argues that, to have adjudicated a claim on the merits, a state court need not explicitly discuss the federal basis of the claim. Rather, so long as a court has “addressed the alleged error,” there has been “adjudication is on the merits” unless the court states otherwise. Johnson argues that a federal court should consider a federal claim adjudicated on the merits so long as the claim was dismissed “on substantive grounds,” even if the federal basis was not explicitly addressed. Johnson further believes that state courts have a duty to enforce the Constitution and federal law, and thus should be presumed to have done so absent a statement to the contrary. This is particularly true, according to Johnson, where the underlying question for state and federal claims is the same, notwithstanding some variation in legal or factual support. To draw the same “technical distinctions” between state and federal claims as federal courts must do so for jurisdictional reasons, Johnson alleges, ignores the realities under which state courts function. Johnson also cites Early v. Packer, which held that a state court decision is not “contrary to established federal law” simply because it does not cite U.S. Supreme Court cases. Johnson concludes that, taken together with Richter’s presumption of adjudication on the merits, Early suggests the rule that a state court’s ruling that no error occurred is an adjudication of federal claims based on the same error.

Indirect Adjudication

The Ninth Circuit’s decision suggests that, in some cases, a state court’s adjudication of a state law claim may indirectly serve as an adjudication of a constitutional claim if adjudicating the state claim “necessarily entailed” considering the constitutional basis. This would be the case if, for example, California defined a court’s discretion to discharge a juror to have the same limits as the Sixth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit found, however, that a juror dismissal complying with California law may still violate the Sixth Amendment. Williams argues that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning on this point is correct. Johnson, however, argues that because Williams “intertwined” her claims, the state court had no reason to consider them separately. In any case, Johnson argues, the state court reasonably could have decided that the question underlying both claims was whether the Juror was biased or not.

Federalism and Comity Concerns

The States point out that the purpose of the AEDPA is to “to further the principles of comity, finality, and federalism.” The Ninth Circuit’s opinion, in the States’ view, assumes that the California Court of Appeals was, at best, careless and is thus inconsistent with a relationship of mutual respect and cooperation that must exist between federal and state courts. Furthermore, the States argue, adhering to the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning will “reward” habeas petitioners who “obscure their federal claims in state courts” and penalizes courts that choose to issue opinions rather than summary decisions. Indeed, Johnson points out that deference to the coequal state courts is central to the Richter decision itself. Moreover, Johnson believes that the Ninth Circuit’s opinion would give federal courts power to dictate how state courts are to write their opinions—a power specifically denied by the Supreme Court.

NACDL responds that acknowledging the reality that state courts sometimes overlook federal claims is simply realistic and therefore not disrespectful. In addition, Williams argues that the Ninth Circuit, far from presuming error on the part of the state court, actually found that Richter did not apply only after a substantive examination of Richter’s underlying reasoning. Williams further notes that the Ninth Circuit tried (and failed) to find that the state court had impliedly adjudicated the Sixth Amendment claims on the merits. Accordingly, Williams believes that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning leaves both federalism and comity intact.


If a state court, through a written opinion or by judicial decision, already ruled on an issue, that issue has been “adjudicated on the merits,” which means that the issue cannot be the subject of a writ of habeas corpus. The statute governing writs of habeas corpus was amended in 1996 by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), which calls for federal courts to give deference to state court decisions and work under the assumption that the state court’s ruling is correct and thus need not be reconsidered by a federal court. At issue in this case is whether a writ of habeas corpus has been “adjudicated on the merits” where the state court’s opinion never mentioned the federal basis for the claim at issue. The Supreme Court’s decision will affect the level of deference federal courts give to state courts in future habeas petitions and may possibly formulate new requirements for state court opinions.

Deference to State Courts

According to the Attorney General of Illinois, writing on behalf of thirty-one states (“the States”), the AEDPA was passed to increase federal deference to state court rulings. Under the States’ analysis, the AEDPA suggests that barring a reason to believe otherwise, federal courts should assume that state courts’ opinions cover all issues raised by the petitioner of the writ. Continuing their reasoning, any reduction in the deference paid to state courts would infringe upon the rights envisioned by Congress when it passed the AEDPA in 1996.

In arguing for Respondent Tara Williams, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) suggests that increased review by federal courts is required to protect habeas corpus petitioners. The NACDL argues that allowing federal courts to review federal issues not explicitly ruled on in state court opinions would lead to more petitioners having their cases fairly adjudicated, as they would be ensured that all of their issues were adjudicated. The NACDL further believes that a ruling in favor of Respondent will alleviate the potential error of a state court that accidentally misses a federal issue in its initial review by allowing that issue to be considered and ruled upon by a federal court in an ensuing writ filing.

However, the States argue that a ruling for increased federal oversight would incentivize petitioners to bury their claims in their initial state court writ with the hope that a state court would ignore it, leaving the door open for federal court adjudication of the issue. The NACDL retorts that state courts' inclusion of language in their opinions that all meritorious claims had been adjudicated would easily remedy that tactic.

State Court Opinion Requirements

Petitioner Johnson argues that decreased deference to state courts will in turn force state courts to include specific language in their opinions, explicitly stating the issues that have been adjudicated. The States also suggest that by imposing language requirements for state court opinions, state courts may be less likely to issue opinions at all for fear that federal courts would attack and overturn their decisions on issues that the state court previously adjudicated but failed to explicitly mention in their written opinion. A reduction in written state court opinions, the States argue, would greatly retard the development of common law to the detriment of courts, attorneys, and petitioners alike.

The NACDL counters that requiring specific language places a small burden on state courts that could be easily handled by a sentence at the end of an opinion stating that all meritorious claims have been adjudicated and that the remaining claims are dismissed. They additionally argue that instead of being detrimental, a requirement of specific language would likely lead to state courts writing more complete, and thus beneficial, opinions.


In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether a federal claim has been “adjudicated on the merits” for AEDPA purposes when a state court issued a decision accompanied by an explanation of the state law claim but did not explicitly address the federal grounds for relief. Petitioner Johnson argues that the AEDPA calls for federal courts to defer to state court decisions when considering habeas corpus petitions and that any dismissal of a claim on substantive grounds should be considered an adjudication on the merits. Respondent Williams counters that if a state court opinion does not explicitly address a federal ground for relief, the federal court can review that ground anew when raised in a subsequent habeas petition. The outcome of the case will affect how federal and state courts interact regarding federal claims on habeas corpus review.

Edited by 


Additional Resources 

• Michael O'Hear, A Test for Richter’s Reach (Jan. 31, 2012)