Johnson v. Williams (11-465)

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.


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.



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. See Williams v. Cavazos, 646 F.3d 626, 631 (9th Cir. 2011). 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. See id. 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. See id. At trial, Williams was found guilty of special circumstances murder and firearm enhancement and sentenced to life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole. See id.

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. See Williams, 646 F.3d at 632. 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. See id. at 632-33. 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. See id. at 633.

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. See Williams, 646 F.3d at 633. 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. See id. 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. See id.  

As a result of the Juror’s responses, the Prosecution sought his removal from the jury. See Williams, 646 F.3d at 634. 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.  See id. The following day, the Court replaced the Juror with an alternate and Williams was ultimately found guilty on both counts. See id.

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. See Williams, 646 F.3d at 635. 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, 25 Cal.4th 466 (2001). See id. 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. See id. Importantly, the Court of Appeals’ opinion did not address Williams’ claim that dismissal of the Juror was a violation of her Sixth Amendment rights. See id. 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. See id.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. See Cavazos v. Williams, 132 S. Ct. 1088 (2012). 



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. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). 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. See Brief for Amicus Curiae Illinois et al. in Support of Petitioner at 2. 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. See Brief for Petitioner at i. 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. See Brief of Illinois et al. at 2; Brief for Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) in Support of Respondent at 20. 

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. See Brief of Illinois et al. at 2. 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. See Brief of Illinois et al. at 2. 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. See Brief of Illinois et al. at 2–3.

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. See Brief of NACDL at 23. 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. See Brief of NACDL at 24. 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. See Brief of NACDL at 24.  

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. See Brief of Illinois at 10–11.  The NACDL retorts that state courts' inclusion of language in their opinions that all meritorious claims had been adjudicated would easily remedy that tactic.  See Brief of NACDL at 20.

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. See Brief for Petitioner at 42–43. 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. See Brief of Illinois et al. at 43. 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. See Brief of Illinois et al. at 3.

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. See Brief of NACDL at 20. 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. See Brief of NACDL at 10–11.  



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. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). 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, 131 S. Ct. 770 (2011). 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. See Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770 (2011). Indeed, nothing in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) requires a statement of reasons accompanying a decision. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

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. See Brief for Respondent, Tara Williams at 20. This method, according to Williams, has been historically successful and need not be altered. See id.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. See id. at 21. Williams argues that Richter’s analysis, “by its own terms,” applies only to summary court orders. See id. at 23. Thus, Williams argues that the state appellate court’s decision falls outside of the purview of Richter because it was accompanied by an explanation. See id. 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. See id. at 24. 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.” See id. at 26. For example, Williams notes Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S. 449 (2009), which “held that a completely unadjudicated claim is entitled to de novo review.” See id. 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. See id. 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. See Brief of NACDL at 2.

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. See Brief for Petitioner at 22. Rather, so long as a court has “addressed the alleged error,” there has been “adjudication is on the merits” unless the court states otherwise. See id.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. See id. at 24. 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. See id. at 25–26. 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. See id. at 27–28. 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. See id. at 32. Johnson also cites Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3 (2002), 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. See id. at 34–35. 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. See id. at 37–38.

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. See Williams, 646 F.3dat 640. 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. See id. 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. See Brief for Respondent at 57. Johnson, however, argues that because Williams “intertwined” her claims, the state court had no reason to consider them separately. See Brief for Petitioner at 48–49. 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. See id. at 49.

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.”See Brief of Illinois et al. at 2 (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 420, 436 (2000)). 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. See id. at 2–3. 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. See id. at 3.Indeed, Johnson points out that deference to the coequal state courts is central to the Richter decision itself. See Brief for Petitioner at 39. 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. See Brief for Petitioner at 22 (citing Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 739 (1991)).

NACDL responds that acknowledging the reality that state courts sometimes overlook federal claims is simply realistic and therefore not disrespectful. See Brief of NACDL at 2–3. 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. See Brief for Respondentat 56. 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. See id. Accordingly, Williams believes that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning leaves both federalism and comity intact. See id.



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)