Adequate and Independent State Grounds

The doctrine of adequate and independent state grounds shields state court decisions from review by the United States Supreme Court if the state court has decided the case on grounds that are distinct from and not reliant on federal law and that are tenable and substantial enough to support the state court's judgment ( Baker 1985 ). The doctrine is often said to stem from Murdock v. Memphis, 87 U.S. 590 ( 1875 ), in which the Supreme Court interpreted the Judiciary Act of 1867. In Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 ( 1983 ), the Supreme Court ruled that state courts must also “clearly and expressly” state that their decision rests on state grounds to ensure that the Supreme Court will not review it.

This doctrine of Supreme Court self-restraint is grounded in ideas about the dual sovereignty that characterizes American federalism ( Baker 1985 ). Because the federal Constitution trumps state law wherever it applies, the Constitution is often said to create a floor, especially in the area of rights, establishing a minimum level of national protection. State governments then remain free to offer enhanced protection through statutory and constitutional law, and these legal protections can be enforced by state courts regardless of federal constitutional developments ( Gardner 2005 ).

The Burger Court ( 1969–86 ) and then the Rehnquist Court ( 1986–2005 ) narrowed the protection available under many provisions of the federal Bill of Rights. During this era the doctrine of adequate and independent state grounds was particularly consequential as state supreme courts took advantage of it to resist this rightward turn of federal doctrine. In this late-twentieth-century movement, known as the new judicial federalism, state high courts began to declare that provisions in their state constitutions were more protective of individual rights than the US Constitution ( Williams 2009 ). For example, although the Supreme Court had already found, in Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U.S. 551 ( 1972 ), that the US Constitution did not guarantee the freedom of speech within private shopping malls, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state's constitution did protect speech rights even within these private establishments ( Williams 2009 ).

Federal developments in criminal law were particularly prominent in motivating state courts to focus on the rights guarantees contained in their state constitutions and to rely on independent and adequate state grounds ( Williams 2009 ). For instance, a group of state high courts, including those in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and New Jersey, developed a more protective reading of their state prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures than the US Supreme Court's reading of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution ( State v. Von Bulow, 475 A.2d 995 [R.I. 1984]; State v. Ball, 124 NH 226 [1983]; State v. Kaluna, 520 P.2d 51 [Haw. 1974]; State v. Johnson, 68 N.J. 349 [1975] ). Similarly, the Maine Supreme Court found more robust protections against self-incrimination in the Maine constitution than the Supreme Court had found in the US Constitution less than a year earlier ( State v. Collins, 297 A.2d 620 [1972] ). The California Supreme Court declared that the state constitution prohibited use of the death penalty after the US Supreme Court had already declared the death penalty constitutionally permissible ( People v. Anderson, 493 P. 2d 880 [1972] ). It is important to note, however, that although the doctrine of adequate and independent state grounds may shield a state court's decisions from the US Supreme Court, it does not protect state court decisions from countervailing amendments placed directly in the state constitution.

Hans Linde ( 1924– Linde 1980 ). The legal scholars who participated in this movement approvingly noted that robust readings of state constitutions were in keeping with America's constitutional system of dual federalism established by the Framers ( Kaye 1987 ), and that the framers of state constitutions often had different understandings of rights than their federal counterparts ( Tarr 1991 ). These thinkers helped to provide the theoretical underpinnings for the new judicial federalism.

SEE ALSO Federal Court Jurisdiction ; Federalism, Theory of ; Judicial Federalism ; State Constitutions ; State Court Jurisdiction .


Baker, T. E. “The Ambiguous Independent and Adequate State Ground in Criminal Cases: Federalism along a Möbius Strip.” Georgia Law Review 19 (1985): 799–859.

Gardner, James A. Interpreting State Constitutions: A Jurisprudence of Function in a Federal System. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Kaye, Judith S. “Dual Constitutionalism in Practice and Principle.” St. John's Law Review 61, no. 3 (1987): 399–430.

Linde, Hans A. “First Things First: Rediscovering the States’ Bills of Rights.” University of Baltimore Law Review. 9 (spring 1980): 379–96.

Tarr, G. Alan. “Constitutional Theory and State Constitutional Interpretation.” Rutgers Law Journal 22 (summer 1991): 841–62.

Williams, Robert F. The Law of American State Constitutions. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Emily Zackin
Johns Hopkins University