Published on: Friday, October 20, 2017

SubcriptLaw recently provided a graphic and interactive explanation of two federal habeas cases to be argued in the United States Supreme Court on October 30: (1) Wilson v. Sellers, No. 16-855; and (2) Ayesta v. Davis, No. 16-6795.

In Wilson, the Court will decide “whether the court’s decision in Harrington v. Richter silently abrogates the presumption set forth in Ylst v. Nunnemaker – that a federal court sitting in habeas proceedings should ‘look through’ a summary state court ruling to review the last reasoned decision – as a slim majority of the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held in this case, despite the agreement of both parties that the Ylst presumption should continue to apply.”  Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, federal habeas relief is only available on a claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court if the federal court determines the state court's adjudication was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, or an unreasonable determination of the facts.  See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).  In Wilson, the Court must decide if federal courts should examine the last reasoned state court decision in conducting their analysis, or should federal courts ignore the last reasoned state court decision and speculate about the reasons that might have been relied upon by a later unexplained state court decision.    Subscript’s explanation provides context to understanding these issues relevant to federal court review of state prisoner federal habeas petitions.   

In Ayesta, the Court will decide “[w]hether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit erred in holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) withholds ‘reasonably necessary’ resources to investigate and develop an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim that state habeas counsel forfeited, where the claimant’s existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the Section 3599(f) motion is made.”  Under § 3559(f), a federal court may authorize an indigent defendant’s attorney to obtain “investigative, expert or other services [that] are reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant.”     As Subscript’s explanation makes plain, the question in Ayesta is to what extent must a petitioner prove that his claim is good (possible or likely to win), to justify the court in granting investigative services.  The answer to this question is important to capital and non-capital habeas petitioners alike.  The ability of indigent federal habeas prisoners to obtain investigative and expert resources during federal habeas proceedings is often critical to vindicating an indigent prisoner’s constitutional rights.

The Training Branch provides Criminal Justice Act resource materials to practioners here.  Training Branch program materials related to federal capital trial and federal capital habeas cases are provided through the Capital Defense Network.