Johnson v. Williams, 2013 WL 610199 C.A. 9 (reversed 133 S.Ct. 1088 (2013)

Note: (Subsequent opinion ). One of the judges on the 9th Circuit (who is repeatedly reversed) wrote some kind of complaint about the Supreme Court reversal of his opinion in this case.  He didn’t know what to do when the mandate from the Supreme Court arrived.  He concluded the Supreme Court had reversed him and there was was nothing he could do about writing  another opinion.  730 F.3d 1212 (9th Cir. 2013). 

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit again-unanimously.The 9th Circuit continued its reversal record in an unrelenting quest for error, misinterpreting the record, parsing  AEDPA and Supreme Court precedent as written in Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S.-(2011).

In a state court criminal trial, the jury foreman wrote the judge that one juror out of eleven refused to join in their decision; expressed views on jury nullification; and required a rule even stricter than “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”  The judge, after questioning the foreman, the juoror, and other jurors, ultimately decided to excuse the one holdout. After replacement of the juror, the panel found the defendant guilty. Defendant appealed.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction  discussing California Supreme Court law on excusing jurors.  The Court of Appeal opinion not only discussed the Supreme Court decision on excusing jurors (U.S. v. Wood, 299 U.S. 123 (1936) but considered other federal court decisions on the subject. The California Court of Appeal did not specifically discuss the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial and its rationale for the court to require a unanimous verdict. 

Defendant filed a habeas corpus petition in U.S. District Court. Denied.  On appeal to the 9th Circuit, the panel held the California Court of Appeal did not consider the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial,.and therefore had not “adjudicated the Sixth Amendment issue on its merits” as required by AEDPA in state court appellate decisions.

The rules under AEDPA require federal Circuit Court of Appeals affirmance of convictions in reviewing habeas corpus petitions to consider those cases with issues in state courts “adjudicated on their merits.” But petitioners frequently submit wheelbarrows of complaints in their habeas corpus petitions.  What language should the state appellate court use in responding to the flood of claims to establish the judges have considered all claims “adjudicated on their merits.”

The 9th Circuit held the California Court of Appeal discussed state law on excusing jurors but not federal law on the Sixth Amendment. Despite the similarity of law in both jurisdictions, according to the 9th Circuit panel the failure to include resolution on Sixth Amendment grounds required reversal.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, rejected this decision.  An appellate court cannot address every claim filed in habeas corpus petitions, no matter how frivolous.  In most cases, the state court resolves meritorious claims and ignores the balance by writing “all other claims dismissed.”  Under the 9th Circuit view, the state appellate court must address every federal claim, a task of impossible proportions.

The Supreme Court held that state court appellate decisions stating “all claims dismissed on their merits” is sufficient to comply with the “adjudicated on the merits ” rule of AEDPA.  The Supreme Court left a presumption of compliance under this rule but rebuttal was possible only in rare cases. This tiny exception is fodder for 9th Circuit reversals.

Aside from the application of procedural rules for habeas corpus cases, Johnson v. Williams qualifies as another example of judicial hairsplitting.  The evidence of guilt was overwhelming and the jury found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Excusing the single juror is correctly supported by evidence and not attributable to a juror insisting on innocence.  The state appellate court denied the appeal on substantially the same grounds as the Sixth Amendment. And the Supreme Court agreed.