Virginia and seventeen other States recently filed a U.S. Supreme Court amicus curiae brief in support of Alabama’s cert petition in Alabama v. Williams (23-682). The States argue that the case raises important questions of federalism because it addresses the extent to which federal habeas courts must defer to a state court’s criminal decisions. (By way of disclaimer, I am one of the lawyers for the Commonwealth of Virginia in this case and am writing here in my personal capacity.)

The case involves a state prisoner’s claims under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), which limits the extent to which federal courts can review state prisoners’ claims for habeas relief. Inmate Marcus Williams is in prison for the murder and rape of Melanie Rowell, but he argues in his habeas petition that he should be resentenced because his counsel was ineffective during his trial’s penalty phase. When a state prisoner files a habeas corpus claim that a state court adjudicates, and the prisoner then files that same habeas claim in federal court, AEDPA requires federal courts to defer to the prior state court ruling as long as the claim was “adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings.” So AEDPA tells federal courts that when a state court has already decided the prisoner’s habeas claim on the merits, the federal court should defer to the state court’s decision.

But in Williams’s case the federal court did not defer to the state court’s decision. Instead, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that, although the state trial court had indeed ruled on the claim on the merits, AEDPA did not require deference to that decision because a state court of appeals had later affirmed that decision without addressing the merits. The state appellate court had affirmed the trial court’s decision on procedural grounds, holding that Williams’s claims had been “procedurally barred” and not reaching the merits. The Eleventh Circuit then remanded, the federal trial court then granted Williams’s federal habeas claim, and last year a divided Eleventh Circuit panel affirmed the grant of habeas relief. Alabama has filed a petition for a writ of certiorari.

The amicus brief of Virginia and seventeen other States argues that principles of federalism require AEDPA deference to a state trial court merits decision when the state appellate courts do not reverse that decision. And it argues that the Supreme Court should intervene to settle the question because federal courts of appeals are divided on its answer.

First, amici States argue that because federal habeas review generally undermines state sovereignty, principles of federalism require that this review must be applied sparingly. The States say that federal habeas impinges directly on the States’ interests in adjudicating their own criminal cases, both because it undermines the finality of a state’s criminal convictions, and also because it imposes financial and institutional costs on states’ criminal justice systems. Moreover, AEDPA itself relied on these principles of federalism and comity, and it should be applied with that point in mind.

Second, amici States argue that based on these principles, federal courts owe AEDPA deference to a state merits decision when the state appellate courts do not reverse the merits decision. AEDPA’s text, they argue, requires this result because under these circumstances the claim was indeed “adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings.” Plus, if there were any doubt about the statute’s meaning in this context, principles of federalism require that the federal court defer to the state court’s decision rather than undermine state sovereignty.

And third, amici States argue that a contrary view would harm state court practice and procedure. The States observe that many state appellate courts face heavy caseloads and may affirm on the simplest available grounds, so federal courts should not interpret a procedural affirmance as implicitly disagreeing with or discrediting the merits decision that it affirms. Moreover, if federal courts held otherwise, then state appellate courts in practice would have to change their manner of affirmance (perhaps by adding a new merits section unnecessarily to such opinions) to mollify federal habeas courts; but this result too would undermine comity and federalism.

Alabama’s petition for a writ of certiorari was distributed for the conference of February 16, 2024.

Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].