The U.S. Supreme Court this week again emphasized the deference federal courts must give to state courts in considering federal habeas claims.

The Court reversed a grant of federal habeas relief in a death penalty case on a claim that the state trial court had improperly struck a juror who could consider the death penalty.

The case is White v. Wheeler, decided December 14.


During voir dire, a juror gave inconsistent answers as to whether he could consider the death penalty.  He agreed with the prosecutor that he was “not absolutely certain whether [he] could realistically consider” the death penalty, but later said he could consider all penalty options.

The State moved to strike the juror.

The trial judge initially believed that the juror could consider the death penalty, but she reserved ruling until she could review a transcript.  She struck the juror the next day after reviewing the transcript. 

Petitioner Wheeler, who was convicted and sentenced to death, sought habeas relief on grounds that the trial court erred in striking the juror because the juror said he could consider the death penalty.

The Sixth Circuit granted relief.  The court held that the state court had unreasonably applied Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), and Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412 (1985).


The Supreme Court reversed, in a per curiam opinion.

Habeas relief is authorized, under 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(1), only if a state court’s decision is “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” 

This requires a habeas petitioner to show that the state ruling “was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement,” the Supreme Court said.  “[F]ederal habeas review of a Witherspoon-Whitt claim – much like federal habeas review on an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim – must be ‘doubly deferential.’”

The Sixth Circuit “did not properly apply the deference it was required to accord the state-court ruling,” the Court held.  The juror’s answers were “at least ambiguous” as to whether he could consider the death penalty.  In such circumstances, the trial court is entitled to resolve the matter in favor of the State.

The trial judge’s ruling was not entitled to less deference merely because she had deliberated after her initial ruling which did not strike the juror. 

“It is true that a trial court’s contemporaneous assessment of a juror’s demeanor, and its bearing on how to interpret or understand the juror’s responses, are entitled to substantial deference; but a trial court’s ruling is likewise entitled to deference when made after a careful review of a formal transcript or recording,” the Court concluded.