7.7. Federal Appellate Review of State Cases

Lore Rutz-Burri

Through petitions for writ of certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court will be in a position to review cases coming to it from the state courts. Because the review is discretionary, the Court will generally accept review only when these cases appear to involve a significant question involving the federal constitution. As a case works its way through the state appeals process, the state courts may have made rulings about both the federal constitution and its own state constitution. Depending on the case and how the state opinions were written, the U.S. Supreme Court may find it difficult to determine whether the state interpreted its own constitution, in which case the Court will not accept review, or whether it interpreted the federal constitution, in which case the Court may accept review. The U.S. Supreme Court in Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, at 1040-1041 (1983), explained when the Court will “weigh in” on a state court matter. [1] It held,

“When . . . a state court decision fairly appears to rest primarily on federal law, or to be interwoven with the federal law, and when the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion, we will accept as the most reasonable explanation that the state court decided the case the way it did because it believed that federal law required it to do so. If a state court chooses merely to rely on federal precedents as it would on the precedents of all other jurisdictions, then it need only make clear by a plain statement in its judgment or opinion that the federal cases are being used only for the purpose of guidance, and do not themselves compel the result that the court has reached. In this way, both justice and judicial administration will be greatly improved. If the state court decision indicates clearly and expressly that it is alternatively based on bona fide separate, adequate, and independent grounds, we, of course, will not undertake to review the decision.

This approach obviates [does away with] in most instances the need to examine state law in order to decide the nature of the state court decision, and will at the same time avoid the danger of our rendering advisory opinions.  It also avoids the unsatisfactory and intrusive practice of requiring state courts to clarify their decisions to the satisfaction of this Court.  We believe that such an approach will provide state judges with a clearer opportunity to develop state jurisprudence unimpeded by federal interference, and yet will preserve the integrity of federal law.  ‘It is fundamental that state courts be left free and unfettered by us in interpreting their state constitutions.  But it is equally important that ambiguous or obscure adjudications by state courts do not stand as barriers to a determination by this Court of the validity under the federal constitution of state action’ (Citations omitted).”

  1. Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, at 1040-1041 (1983)


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