Johnson v. Williams (11-465) arises out of the California criminal trial of Tara Williams who was convicted of special circumstances murder and forearms enhancement. During the trial, a juror was dismissed for being biased against the prosecution and was replaced by an alternate juror after an inquiry by the trial court.
Williams appealed to the Court of Appeals under the California state constitution and the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction without specifically addressing Williams’ Sixth Amendment claim. She then filed a federal habeas corpus petition in federal court, which was denied by the district court.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court, finding that Williams’ Sixth Amendment claim had not been “adjudicated on the merits.”
Warden Deborah K. Johnson (the Petitioner) appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that the Ninth Circuit was incorrect. The Petitioner claims that while the Court of Appeals did not explicitly mention the Sixth Amendment claim in its decision, that court did adjudicate the Sixth Amendment federal claim on the merits.
The Petitioner asked the Supreme Court to adopt, as a rule, that when a case is decided, all claims are deemed to be adjudicated unless there is a plain statement of the court to the contrary.
Justice Kennedy opined to the Petitioner that even if the court did not adopt this rule, that the Petitioner could win because the Sixth Amendment claim was determined by the reading of the Court of Appeals ruling.
Justice Ginsberg, in narrowing the focus to the case at hand indicated that the state law claims and the constitutional claims were so dependent on each other, that the Sixth Amendment claims were actually adjudicated.
Many of the justices argued that the word “denied” assumed under the presumption of regularity, that all claims before the court were adjudicated, and no further language would be necessary. In addition, that to require this additional inquiry would likely increase litigation in these cases. Extrapolating from this, Justice Scalia lamented that such litigation in capital punishment cases could “reduce the sentence” of those sentenced to death.
Straying from the issue before the Court, a number of justices, including Justices Kennedy, Kagan, Ginsberg and Sotomayor dove into the merits and facts of the underlying case, expressing concern.
Justice Kennedy said I “hope this (excusing jurors for bias against the prosecution) doesn’t happen with much regularity.” Justice Kagen joined Justice Kennedy in calling the facts of the case and it’s outcome “troubling.”
In a lengthy discussion with the attorney for the Respondent, Justice Breyer went through the decision of the Court of Appeals noting that of the 27 lines of the decision, 14 of them dealt with the Cleveland case. And, Breyer continued, that because that case was a ruling on the Sixth Amendment and juror bias, the lower court must have reached the merits of Sixth Amendment claim.
Kagan seemed to agree summarizing that the issue before the court was not whether the Sixth Amendment claim was decided correctly the Court of Appeals in relying on the Cleveland case, rather, it matters that they actually considered the Sixth Amendment claim.