The Court today handed down a decision in Rompilla v. Beard, which was argued on January 18, 2005. The Court’s opinion was authored by Justice David Souter, who assembled a 5-4 majority for reversing the judgment under review.

Rompilla presented two questions to the Court. The first question was whether Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994) requires a “life without parole” jury instruction when state law sets life without the possibility of parole is a defendant’s only alternative to a death sentence. The second question was whether a defendant has received unconstitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel at a capital sentencing hearing when his counsel does not review the defendant’s prior conviction record, which would provide mitigating evidence regarding the defendant’s traumatic childhood and mental health impairments.

Justice Souter’s majority opinion held that even when a capital defendant’s family members and the defendant himself have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, defendant’s counsel is still bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on as evidence of aggravation at the sentencing phase of trial. Justice Souter did not reach the question of whether a “life without parole” jury instruction was required.

Justice O’Connor wrote a separate concurrence. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy dissented in an opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Procedural History

In 1988, a jury in Lehigh County Pennsylvania convicted Ronald Rompilla for the killing of tavern owner James Scanlon, finding Rompilla guilty of first-degree murder. At the sentencing phase of Rompilla’s trial, prosecutors argued to the jury that Rompilla was a violent repeat offender who had learned to leave no witnesses. During the penalty phase, the jury asked whether the defendant would be eligible for parole if given life in prison. The trial judge stated that he couldn’t answer that question and also declined to answer questions about the defendant's prior sentences and rehabilitation possibilities. The jury then sentenced Rompilla to death.

Rompilla appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, claiming that his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel had been violated by the failure of his lawyers to use school, medical, court and prison records as mitigating factors. According to Rompilla, these documents would have shown that he had an IQ within the mentally retarded range, an unstable family life while growing up, and had long-standing problems with alcohol addiction. Rompilla also claimed that his counsel had not interviewed two of his sisters, who could have disclosed further traumatic details of his early family life.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion affirmed Rompilla’s conviction and sentence twice, the second time when hearing his Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition for relief. Chief Justice John Flaherty, the sole dissenter at the PCRA stage, wanted to set aside Rompilla’s death sentence based on Simmons v. South Carolina (a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case holding that if the prosecution argues future dangerousness, the jury must be instructed that life imprisonment means life without parole).

The Pennsylvania district court hearing Rompilla’s claim for habeas relief rejected his jury instructions argument but agreed with his ineffective counsel argument, ordering Pennsylvania to release Rompilla unless the state resentenced him to life in prison or conducted a new penalty phase at trial. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s rejection of Rompilla’s jury instructions argument but reversed the trial court’s finding that Rompilla had received ineffective counsel. Judge Dolores Sloviter dissented, citing American Bar Association guidelines that defense attorneys “should comprise efforts to discover all reasonably available mitigating evidence and evidence to rebut any aggravating evidence that may be introduced by the prosecutor,” and arguing that Rompilla’s lawyers had failed to fulfill this obligation. Judge Sloviter also argued that the state court trial judge had not adequately explained Pennsylvania law to the jurors, even when the jury requested clarification. The 3rd Circuit voted 7-5 not to accept the case for a rehearing.

The Supreme Court's opinion

Justice Souter’s majority opinion rejected the state of Pennsylvania’s argument that the information that trial counsel gathered from Rompilla and other sources gave them sound reason to think that it would have been pointless to spend time and money investigating Rompilla’s potential history of dependence on alcohol and/or Rompilla’s school records and records of juvenile and adult incarcerations. Rather, as Justice Souter found, trial counsels’ knowledge that the Commonwealth would seek the death penalty against Rompilla presented “an obvious reason that the failure to examine Rompilla’s prior conviction file fell below the level of reasonable performance” required by Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Since the prosecution was planning to use “the dramatic facts of a similar prior offense” when making its case for the death penalty, “Rompilla's counsel had a duty to make all reasonable efforts to learn what they could” about this previous offense.

Commentators have previously noted the Supreme Court’s recent tendency to use ABA guidelines as a guide to determining standards for reasonable and effective representation. Justice Souter’s opinion continues this trend, quoting at length the ABA Standards for Criminal Justice as a way to explain why trial counsels’ duty to “obtain information that the State has and will use against the defendant is not simply a matter of common sense.” According to Justice Souter, the ABA guidelines set out the obligations of trial counsel “in the circumstances of a case like this one" in terms "no one could misunderstand.”

Justice Kennedy’s dissent criticized the majority for “impos[ing] on defense counsel a rigid requirement to review all documents . . . of any prior conviction that the prosecution might rely on at trial.” As Justice Kennedy argued, a “per se rule requiring counsel in every case to review the records of prior convictions” could potentially “distract” counsel from “the overriding mission of vigorous advocacy,” interfering with “the constitutionally protected independence of counsel and restrict[ing] the wide latitude counsel must have in making tactical decisions.” Justice Kennedy also found “the investigation performed by Rompilla’s counsel in preparation for sentencing was not only adequate but also conscientious.” Like the Third Circuit, Justice Kennedy considered it sufficient that Rompilla’s counsel had questioned Rompilla and his family “extensively” about his upbringing and backgound, and arranged for Rompilla to be examined by three experienced mental health professionals.

Justice O’Connor’s separate concurrence directly took up the dissent’s concern, asserting that “the Court’s opinion imposes no such [per se] rule.” According to Justice O’Connor, the Court’s decision was simply an application of its “longstanding case-by-case approach to determining whether an attorney’s performance was unconstitutional.” Justice O’Connor then went on to spell out the three circumstances which made trial counsels’ failure to examine Rompilla’s prior conviction file unreasonable. The first circumstance was Rompilla’s attorneys knowledge “that their client’s prior conviction would be at the very heart of the prosecution’s case.” The second circumstance was the destructive impact that the prosecutor’s planned use of the prior convictions threatened to have on “one of the defense’s primary mitigation arguments.” The third and final circumstance was that “the attorneys’ decision not to obtain Rompilla’s prior conviction file was not the result of an informed tactical decision about how the lawyers’ time would best be spent.”

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