Wilson v. Sellers (Decision April 17, 2018)
What's a reviewing court supposed to do with an unexplained decision?
An appeals court doesn't re-litigate an entire case. Generally, it is asked to review whether a certain aspect of the lower court's decision was incorrect. That's the starting point - the lower court's ruling. And the lower court's rationale is the basis for review.
But in some cases, the lower court doesn't say much. It's called a "summary decision." How is a court supposed to review that?
Federal court review in this case
In this case, Marion Wilson was denied a few death penalty appeals. One of them was a leap from the state court appeal system to the federal court review system.
Wilson had requested that the federal courts review whether the state court system had failed him (a habeas corpus review). He said his lawyer had been ineffective, and the state court process had not recognized it. Though he had lost in the state court appeals, he asked the federal courts for a different result.
The latest state court decision about his case was from the Georgia Supreme Court. The GA Supreme Court had rejected his appeal, but the decision didn't justify itself. When the federal court got ahold of the case, it had to decide how to interpret the GA Supreme Court's rationale. It went ahead and incorporated the ruling of the lower Georgia court - the one that the GA Supreme Court was reviewing. The "look through" process assumes that if the GA Supreme Court was objecting to the lower court's opinion, it would have explained so. In any event, the federal court decided that the GA Supreme Court ruling was fine.
Then, however, since Wilson had lost at the first-level in the federal system, he appealed again. This time to the federal appeals court (Eleventh Circuit). The Eleventh Circuit rejected the lower federal court's "look through" process. It said a court can't just assume that an unexplained decision incorporates the rationale of the lower court. It said, rather, the court should imagine the reasons the unexplained decision could have been explained and then decide if those are reasonable. Sounds like a worse guessing game.
The Court stepped in
The Supreme Court ruled that the lower federal court had, in fact, done the right thing. In federal habeas corpus cases, a reviewing federal court can assume that an unexplained state court decision incorporates the rationale of the court below it. The Court thus confirmed the "look through" process in federal habeas corpus (unlawful detention) cases. It did state, however, that the presumption can be "rebutted" (argued against). The state would have to present evidence indicating that the summary decision was not in fact in agreement with the rationale below.
What does that mean for Wilson? He gets to continue his uphill battle in the federal court system, although at this point the potential for relief from his death sentence is still looking bleak.