Chappell v. Ayala

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Chappell v. Ayala.


Does a state court’s determination that a trial court committed a harmless error amount to an “adjudication on the merits,” as defined in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), thereby limiting a federal court’s ability to review the trial court’s conviction only when the standards stated in the aforementioned provision are met?

Oral argument: 
March 3, 2015

The Supreme Court will determine to what extent federal courts can evaluate state court determinations of federal error regarding a federal question. Kevin Chappell, Warden of the State of California, contends that federal courts must grant significant deference to state court determinations denying federal habeas relief for convicted defendants based on a finding that any error that occurred during a trial was a harmless error. Hector Ayala, a prisoner, counters that federal courts should have the opportunity to independently review federal habeas petitions for error and determine how much prejudice the defendant suffered when state courts determined an error was harmless. The Supreme Court’s decision will impact the level of deference afforded to state courts in determinations of harmless error and will affect the jury selection process.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

  1. Was a state court's rejection of a claim of federal constitutional error on the ground that any error, if one occurred, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt an “adjudicat[ion] on the merits” within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), so that a federal court may set aside the resulting final state conviction only if the defendant can satisfy the restrictive standards imposed by that provision?; and
  2. Did the court of appeals properly applied [sic] the standard articulated in Brecht v. Abrahamson?


In 1985, Hector Ayala was charged with “three counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, one count of robbery and three counts of attempted robbery.” In 1989, jury selection began with the review of over 200 juror questionnaires followed by juror interviews by the court and parties. After the interviews, the court dismissed some jurors for cause, such as bias, and then began the selection of the seated jurors. The court gave each party twenty peremptory challenges to be used upon the individuals positioned to serve on the jury, and an additional six challenges to be used in selecting the alternates. The prosecutor used peremptory challenges to exclude all seven black or Hispanic prospective jurors available for challenge, resulting in a jury with no members of these ethnic groups. In response, Ayala brought three Batson motions claiming that the prosecutor was systematically excluding minority jurors based on their race. The judge required the prosecutor to explain the reasoning for the exclusions without Ayala’s counsel present, so Ayala’s counsel objected. The judge concluded that the prosecutor had race-neutral reasons for excluding the minority jurors.

Subsequently, the jury convicted Ayala on all but one count, and “returned a verdict of death.” Ayala appealed his conviction to the California Supreme Court, claiming the original judge should not have excluded his attorney from the Batson proceedings, but the California Supreme Court upheld Ayala’s conviction and sentence based on a finding that, although under state law the judge erred by holding the Batson hearings ex parte, the error was harmless.

Ayala then petitioned the United States Supreme Court for writ of certiorari, but his petition was denied. Ayala then filed a habeas corpus petition but the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (“district court”) denied it. However, the district court issued a Certificate of Appealability in regard to Ayala’s Batson claims.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”) reversed and remanded, instructing the district court to grant federal habeas corpus review. The Ninth Circuit stated that Ayala’s habeas corpus petition was subject to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), which required a determination of whether the California Supreme Court had adjudicated the federal claim on the merits. The Ninth Circuit noted that “[w]hen a state court rejects a federal claim without expressly addressing that claim, a federal habeas court must presume that the federal claim was adjudicated on the merits—but that presumption can in some limited circumstances be rebutted.” However, the Ninth Circuit concluded that this presumption did not apply in Ayala’s case, and also, that the California Supreme Court’s opinion rebutted the presumption. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the California Supreme Court had implicitly found that there was error “under state and federal constitutional law alike” because California courts interpret a violation of these matters under state law as proof of the same violation under federal law. Alternatively, the Ninth Circuit concluded, the California Supreme Court had not adjudicated Ayala’s claim on the merits, and thus, the presumption did not apply.

Further, applying the Brecht standard, the Ninth Circuit held that the trial judge’s error in holding ex parte proceedings was both prejudicial and unconstitutional.


The Supreme Court will determine the level of deference federal courts should exercise on state adjudications under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). Chappell argues that the California Supreme Court’s rejection of Ayala’s Batson claims, holding that there was harmless error, constituted an adjudication on the merits entitled to deference. Ayala counters that the California Supreme Court did not adjudicate his federal Batson claims on the merits, and even if it did, the Ninth Circuit properly conducted this review as one of first impression. Further, the parties disagree on the stringency of granting habeas relief following federal courts’ review of a state adjudication of a federal question.


Chappell contends that under the AEDPA, the California Supreme Court’s judgment that the trial court’s acceptance of the prosecutor’s ex parte explanations for his peremptory strikes constituted harmless error. Chappell explains that the California Supreme Court’s finding that there was “harmless error” when the trial court accepted the prosecution’s race-neutral explanations under Batson without the defense’s presence also constituted an adjudication on the merits. If the California Supreme Court’s ruling is an adjudication on the merits, Chappell argues, then federal courts are precluded from reviewing the decision on appeal. To support this claim, Chappell evaluates the common meaning of the federal statute’s text, as well as draws on prior cases that hold that any judgment on the merits is one based on an evaluation of the parties’ substantive arguments. Chappell notes that the California Supreme Court did evaluate the parties’ arguments on their merits when determining there was harmless error. While the California Supreme Court dispensed its judgment without detail, Chappell continues, the AEDPA simply looks for any reasonable basis for the state court’s ruling, and not a detailed opinion to support the court’s decision. Chappell further notes that the AEDPA looks for whether a state’s determination is a contrary or unreasonable application of federal law; it provides no other grounds for de novo review. Therefore, Chappell argues, federal courts should give deference to the California Supreme Court’s adjudication of the federal question on the merits.

In contrast, Ayala puts forth two arguments challenging the California Supreme Court’s decision. Ayala’s first argument is that the California Supreme Court, by inference, acknowledged that the trial court had committed federal constitutional error, and because there was legal error, the Ninth Circuit had appropriately reviewed and reversed the trial court’s and California Supreme Court’s decisions. Specifically, Ayala contends that the California Supreme Court did articulate a specific ruling on the federal Baston question. Ayala explains that the California Supreme Court articulated a federal Batson error by finding legal error through California’s equivalent to Batson, People v. Wheeler. Because California’s Wheeler standard for discriminatory jury selection is stricter than the federal Batson standard, Ayala argues, it is clear that finding state error means the California Supreme Court, inherently, found federal error. Ayala argues that both the state and federal errors were that the prosecutor was permitted to conduct ex parte the Batson hearings—that is, that Ayala and his counsel were precluded from hearing the prosecutor’s race-neutral explanations for striking minority juror candidates. In light of finding federal error, Ayala continues, de novo review is the only appropriate standard for federal courts to apply.

Alternatively, Ayala contends, assuming California Supreme Court’s ruling was unclear on the federal question, then de novo review is necessary. If the federal question was not specifically adjudicated, Ayala continues, federal courts should have an opportunity to address the merits of an unanswered legal question. Ayala argues that the Ninth Circuit properly found federal constitutional error because there was no compelling justification for Ayala and counsel to be precluded from hearing the prosecution’s reasons for its peremptory strikes. Specifically, Ayala argued, there was no compelling reason for Ayala or his counsel to be excluded from the Batson hearing because no matters of trial strategy were discussed at the hearings.


Chappell argues that habeas relief should not be afforded to Ayala because the AEDPA requires federal courts to give deference to state courts’ meritorious adjudications. Absent full deference to state adjudications, Chappell contends, the AEDPA’s standard for setting aside state convictions are purposefully difficult to attain. Citing to Brecht v. Abrahamson, Chappell argues that habeas relief is only appropriate where an “extreme malfunction” in the state’s criminal justice system occurred. The “extreme malfunction,” Chappell argues, first requires that a “fairminded jurist” would have disagreed about rejecting the federal claim on the facts before the state court. But even if the “fairminded jurist” threshold is met, and if the state court denies relief, Chappell continues, then the reviewing federal court is still obligated to extract any arguments or theories that could support the state court’s decision.

Chappell further contends that the Ninth Circuit erred in granting Ayala habeas relief. Under both Brecht and the AEDPA, Chappell continues, a federal court must defer to a state court’s denial of relief unless the state’s judgment was unreasonable or contrary to federal law. On review, Chappell argues, the Ninth Circuit misapplied Brecht by finding “actual prejudice” based upon record gaps and conjecture. In doing so, Chappell concluded, the Ninth Circuit did not properly consider the multiple layers of analysis that reinforce how much deference federal courts are obligated to give to state court decisions that deny habeas relief to convicted felons.

In contrast, Ayala argues that the Ninth Circuit appropriately found actual prejudice in the California Supreme Court’s habeas denial. As a threshold matter, Ayala argues, Brecht actually grants room for federal courts to determine the extent of a state court’s judgment for harmless error. Ayala argues that the Ninth Circuit appropriately used its discretion to find that Ayala suffered substantial harm because his counsel was denied an opportunity to vigorously mount a defense against the prosecutor’s Batson reasons for peremptorily striking minority jury candidates. If he had been afforded such an opportunity, Ayala argues, he likely would have prevailed. Ayala concludes that “the denial directly had a substantial and injurious effect in determining the jury’s verdict.”

Second, Ayala argues, the Ninth Circuit indeed applied the AEDPA in assessing the level of deference to give to the California Supreme Court’s finding of error. In contrast to Chappell’s claims, Ayala continues, the Ninth Circuit elected to interpret the California Supreme Court’s ruling deferentially. The Ninth Circuit gave deference to the state court by independently upholding the California Supreme Court’s error assessment while conducting its own review for prejudice. The only way that the Ninth Circuit did not afford full deference to the California Supreme Court, Ayala continues, was to reconsider the prejudice element upon finding federal error. Regardless, Ayala concludes, deference is not equated to precluding any relief to a habeas petitioner.


The Supreme Court will determine to what extent federal courts may become involved in state court determinations of federal law in criminal adjudications. Chappell argues that if the Supreme Court holds that a determination of harmless error is not an adjudication on the merits, the decision will interfere with the finality of state court decisions and will undermine prosecutors’ trial strategies in future cases. Ayala counters that federal review of state determinations on harmless error helps ensure that the defendant did not suffer from prejudice. The Supreme Court’s decision will implicate the level of deference federal courts afford to state courts, will affect the number of cases available for federal review, and will affect the way the jury selection process is conducted.


Chappell argues that if the Supreme Court holds that a determination of harmless error is not an adjudication on the merits, thus allowing for federal review of such determinations under the AEDPA, the ruling would undermine Congress’s intent to require federal courts to give deference to state court rulings on criminal proceedings. Further, Chappell contends that through this federal review of state determinations, federal courts would be able to interfere too much with state court decisions. Specifically, Chappell asserts that Congress intended to make it difficult for a defendant to get a writ of habeas corpus and for a federal court to review a state court determination, because such a system promotes “finality, comity, and federalism.”

Ayala counters that federal courts do not need to micromanage state courts in order to protect constitutional rights. Rather, Ayala argues that by reviewing state court determinations of harmless error, federal courts will merely be correcting violations of federal constitutional rights. Ayala asserts that there is a difference between deference and abandonment of review, and that deference is not a bar to relief. Therefore, Ayala maintains that Chappell’s concerns that state court decisions would not be given deference are unfounded.


Chappell argues that if the Supreme Court holds that a determination of harmless error is not an adjudication on the merits, the ruling would create too large a class of claims for federal courts to review de novo. According to Chappell, the expansive class would cause the federal courts to be overwhelmed by an influx of cases; there would be too many individuals turning to federal courts following the individuals’ convictions, and the federal courts would not be able to effectively handle the larger caseload.

Ayala counters that the argument that too many cases would flood the federal courts is unfounded. Ayala asserts that as the law stands, these cases are already amenable to review by federal courts, and thus, there would be no change in the number of defendants seeking review in federal court.


Chappell contends that courts will interfere with prosecutors’ trial strategy if the courts ask prosecutors to disclose to defense attorneys the reasons behind the prosecutors’ peremptory challenges. Conversely, Ayala argues that requiring defense counsel to not be present in the room during the questioning interferes with the defendants’ right to effective counsel. Ayala argues that if defense counsel is present during the a Batson questioning, defense counsel can point out possible flaws in the prosecutor’s reasoning for peremptory challenges. For example, Ayala argues that in his case, his defense counsel could have pointed out when the prosecutor’s reasoning could have applied to another juror whom the prosecutor did not challenge.


The Supreme Court will determine to what extent, in criminal proceedings, federal courts can review state courts’ judgments of federal legal error when such determinations have been made on the merits. Chappell argues that federal courts are required by law to defer to state court determinations and reject federal habeas petitions if the state court adjudicated all legal questions on the merits. Ayala counters that federal courts are empowered to conduct a careful, independent review of federal habeas petitions for legal error, regardless of whether the state court already adjudicated the issue. The Supreme Court’s ruling will impact the level of deference afforded to state courts in determinations of harmless error and will affect the jury selection process.

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