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Interwoven State and Federal Grounds

A state ground must be independent in order to bar Supreme Court review of a state court judgment raising federal issues when both state and federal grounds are present.  There are certain instances where the Supreme Court possess jurisdiction to decide the federal question in the case.  For example, if a nonfederal ground of the state court decision is interwoven with a federal ground or if the nonfederal ground is not enough to sustain the judgment without any decision of the federal ground, then the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide the federal question presented in the case.

When a state constitution or statute is similar to a corresponding provision in the U.S. Constitution or statute, interwoven issues of federal and state law appears.  However, only the similarity between the provisions of federal and state statutes does not implicates that a federal question is presented.  This is because the construction of the state provision is only a matter for the state courts, and their determination is binding on the Supreme Court.

When a state court decision relies primarily on federal law, or to be interwoven with the federal law, and if the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion, then the court will accept as that the state court decided the case the way it did because it believed that federal law required it to do so.[i]

Accordingly, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review a state court decision if:[ii]

  • The state court opinion relies upon a state constitutional provision and state cases as well as a Federal Constitutional provision and federal cases;
  • The opinion indicates that the state constitutional provision is construed in pari materia with the Federal Constitutional provision.

If the state court has only used federal decisions as persuasive authorities, then there is no federal jurisdiction to review the judgment.  In such cases, the state court must make clear by a plain statement in its judgment that the federal cases are used only for the purpose of guidance.  However, if the state court rested its decision primarily on federal law, the U.S. Supreme Court can reach the federal question on review unless the state court’s opinion contains a plain statement that its decision rests upon adequate and independent state grounds.[iii]

However, if a state court falsely believes that it is constrained by federal law to decide a case in a particular manner, the Supreme Court can assume jurisdiction to vacate the judgment of the state court and permit the state court to come to an independent conclusion on the state law issues.

[i] New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (U.S. 1986)

[ii] Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255 (U.S. 1989)

[iii] Id

Inside Interwoven State and Federal Grounds