UC Law Journal


Evan Tsen Lee


In Williams v. Taylor, the United States Supreme Court held that federal habeas courts may not grant relief on a claim adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court decision was contrary to, or involved an "objectively unreasonable" application of, federal law. Neither the opinion in Williams nor the habeas statute specify whether "objectively unreasonable" means that the state court's reasoning was unreasonable, or whether it means that the state court's result was unreasonable. The circuits are presently split on the question. The distinction matters because many state court affirmances of convictions are unaccompanied by opinion. In such cases, it is often impossible to know what the state court's reasoning was. This Article argues that "objective unreasonableness" should be interpreted to mean unreasonableness of the state court's reasoning, and therefore that applications of law to fact in silent state court judgments should be reviewed de novo. This argument relies on an analysis of the statutory text, on a logical extrapolation from Williams, and on an analysis of the intellectual history of the reform movements that eventually led to the present statute. In particular, this Article argues that those who supported the reform movements while waving the banner of "process" are now intellectually estopped to claim that only the results, and not the reasoning, of state court decisions really matter.

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