Notre Dame Law Review
State courts are free to exercise final authority as arbiters of state law and adopt state standards that protect individual rights more than federal law. While state courts have responded to such urgings with expansive rulings, they have not always been careful about spelling out in their decisions whether they were relying on state law, federal law, or both. This judicial imprecision creates a jurisdictional dilemma for the Supreme Court when it is asked to review the state court decision. If the state's decision rests on independent and adequate state grounds, the Court will apply judicial restraint and decline review.
The genesis of the Supreme Court’s “independent and adequate state ground” rule is generally considered to lie in Murdock v. City of Memphis. The Court held that presence of a federal question in a state court decision did not empower the Supreme Court to decide state issues; if there was a state ground that sufficiently supported the judgement. Deciding whether a state court decision was based on a sufficiently broad nonfederal ground generally involves two separate determinations: whether the state decision was grounded on independent state law, and if so, whether that law was adequate to support the judgement. The Supreme Court noted in Henry v. Mississippi the state procedural ground will not be considered adequate unless it serves a legitimate state interest.
One of the principle reasons for the Court’s independent and adequate state ground rule is respect for state courts. However, potential tensions between federal and state court arise. It is also clear that a workable and practical balance is needed. That balance emerges from Michigan v. Long. The Court’s new option for handling ambiguous state decisions which might rest on an independent and adequate state ground is a reasonable rule.
David A. Schlueter, Judicial Federalism and Supreme Court Review of State Court Decisions: A Sensible Balance Emerges, 59 Nᴏᴛʀᴇ Dᴀᴍᴇ L. Rᴇᴠ. 1079 (1984).