The United States Supreme Court will not review a question of federal law decided by a state court if the decision of that court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment. However, the “independent and adequate state ground” doctrine is not technically jurisdictional when a federal court considers a state prisoner’s petition for habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254, since the federal court is not formally reviewing a judgment. It is determining whether the prisoner is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States. The doctrine applies to bar consideration on federal habeas of federal claims that have been defaulted under state law.[i]
The principle that the Supreme Court will not review judgments of state courts that are supported by adequate and independent state grounds is based on the limitations of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.[ii] From the time of its foundation, the U.S. Supreme Court has adhered to the principle that it will not review judgments of state courts that rest on adequate and independent state grounds. The Court’s only power over state judgments is to correct them to the extent that they incorrectly adjudge federal rights. The Court’s power is to correct wrong judgments, and not to revise opinions. The Court is not permitted to render an advisory opinion. If the same judgment would be rendered by the state court after it corrected its views of federal laws, the Court’s review could amount to nothing more than an advisory opinion.[iii]
However, even though the judgment is based on an independent state ground the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review a state court judgment, so long as there is no possibility that the Supreme Court’s opinion will be merely advisory.[iv] Where the state supreme court has clearly rested its decision solely on the United States Constitution, the mere fact that there is a possible adequate and independent state law ground for the state supreme court’s decision, does not bar the United States Supreme Court from reaching federal questions, on petition for writ of certiorari.[v]
[i] Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518 (U.S. 1997)
[ii] Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 111 S. Ct. 2546, 115 L. Ed. 2d 640 (1991).
[iii] Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117 (U.S. 1945)
[iv] Florida v. Meyers, 466 U.S. 380, 104 S. Ct. 1852, 80 L. Ed. 2d 381 (1984).
[v] Oregon v. Guzek, 546 U.S. 517, 126 S. Ct. 1226, 163 L. Ed. 2d 1112 (2006).