“We Would Not Defer to that Which Did Not Exist”: AEDPA Meets the Silent State Court Opinion
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), enacted in 1996
changed both federal habeas procedure and the relationship between federal and state courts. A new provision, § 2254(d), requires federal courts to defer to the legal conclusions of state courts unless those conclusions are “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.” This deferential schema becomes problematic when, as often happens, a prisoner presents a federal constitutional claim to the state courts, but the state court opinions denying relief do not mention the federal claim. How can federal courts assess the reasonableness of a decision that may not exist? The circuit courts have proposed widely variant solutions to this problem, ranging from de novo review to an extreme deference to state court results. In this Note, Claudia Wilner argues that a federal court should not defer to a state court decision unless it is accompanied by an opinion that actually discusses the federal claim. After considering and rejecting the various circuit approaches to reviewing silent state court opinions, she proposes a new approach that balances Congressional intent, Supreme Court precedent, federalism concerns, and the interest of the prisoner seeking review.