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Argument preview: A Tale of Two Williamses

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) placed several substantial limitations on federal courts’ authority to grant habeas relief to state prisoners.  The Supreme Court provided its definitive interpretation of two of the statute’s limiting provisions in a pair of cases –both named Williams v. Taylor – decided on the same day in 2000.  In Terry Williams v. Taylor, the Court laid out the analytic framework for 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), which provides that federal courts shall not grant habeas relief unless the state court decision adjudicating the issue on the merits was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.”  In Michael Williams v. Taylor, the Court unanimously held that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2) does not bar an evidentiary hearing in federal court when the prisoner has “failed to develop the factual basis of a claim in State court proceedings,” unless there is “lack of diligence, or some greater fault, attributable to the prisoner or his counsel.”

Tomorrow in Cullen v. Pinholster (No. 09-1008), the Court will consider a case in which the two Williamses collide.  At issue is the role of evidence admitted in federal court via an evidentiary hearing held pursuant to § 2254(e)(2): may a federal court rely on evidence that was never presented in the state court proceedings to find that a state court decision involved an unreasonable application of federal law under § 2254(d)(1)?  The Court will also consider a second question: may a federal court may grant habeas relief when trial counsel consulted with a psychiatrist and the defendant’s mother in preparation for the penalty phase, but nonetheless failed to discover and introduce mitigating evidence regarding the defendant’s organic brain damage and traumatic childhood?

In 1982, respondent Scott Lynn Pinholster and an accomplice fatally stabbed two men during a burglary.  At trial, Pinholster admitted that he had participated in the burglary, but claimed he was not present when the murders were committed.  The jury was unpersuaded, and he was convicted of capital murder.

During the sentencing phase, the prosecution proffered substantial aggravating evidence.  By contrast, although Pinholster’s lawyers were unaware that the state intended to seek the death penalty and consequently had failed to prepare a mitigation defense, they declined the trial judge’s offer of a continuance.  After consulting with a psychiatrist, Dr. John  Stalberg, who reported that Pinholster did not show any sign of brain damage or other mental disorders beyond antisocial personality disorder, trial counsel put on only one mitigation witness:  Pinholster’s mother, who testified that his stepfather had sometimes disciplined him to the point of abuse.  The jury returned a death sentence.

After his unsuccessful direct appeals, Pinholster’s case took a winding path through the state and federal judiciary.  In his efforts to obtain state post-conviction relief, Pinholster argued that he had received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel because his lawyers had failed to investigate and present significant mitigating evidence – such as testimony from other family members.  Moreover, he contended, another psychiatrist had diagnosed him as having serious mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, and opined that he was suffering from an epileptic seizure at the time of the murders.  The California courts, however, rejected his claims without ordering discovery or an evidentiary hearing.

Pinholster then sought federal habeas relief.  The district court ordered an evidentiary hearing, at which Pinholster developed the mitigating evidence that his trial counsel had failed to introduce at the sentencing phase due to their lack of preparation.  He presented, for example, expert testimony of two mental health experts who diagnosed him with epilepsy, severe mental illness, and organic brain damage resulting from two early childhood traffic accidents involving major head trauma.   He also presented evidence of severe drug addiction from a very young age, his institutionalization in a mental health facility at the age of eleven, and his long history of epileptic seizures.  Concluding that this evidence was admissible under § 2254(e)(2) and Michael Williams v. Taylor because Pinholster had diligently attempted to develop it in state court, and that his trial counsel had been ineffective, the district court granted relief.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that there was no reasonable likelihood that the outcome of the sentencing would have been different had Pinholster’s counsel introduced the mitigating evidence.  However, the Ninth Circuit granted rehearing en banc, vacated the panel opinion, and affirmed the district court’s grant of habeas relief.  The en banc majority held that “Congress did not intend to restrict inquiry under § 2254(d)(1) only to evidence introduced in the state habeas court, or to have federal courts imply any such restriction.”  Thus, the California state court’s decision was an unreasonable application of the Supreme Court’s decision in Strickland v. Washington standard, on the basis of the evidence Pinholster developed at the federal district court evidentiary hearing.  Chief Judge Kozinski dissented.  In his view, “[i]t makes no sense to say that a state court unreasonably applied clearly established Supreme Court law to facts it didn’t know existed.”  California petitioned for certiorari, which the Court granted on June 14, 2010.

In its opening brief on the merits, the state first contends that in evaluating whether a state court decision was an unreasonable application of federal law, federal courts must limit their inquiry to the evidence that was available to the state court when it made its judgment.  But, in any event, the district court erred in admitting the mitigating evidence, because Pinholster could have developed the record in state court but failed to do so.  Finally, it proposes a sequence of analysis that, it contends, will “prevent federal courts from misusing facts developed for the first time in federal court”:  a federal court must first determine that the state court decision was unreasonable under § 2254(d)(1), in the context of the evidence available to it at the time; only then, on the state’s view, may a federal court order an evidentiary hearing pursuant to § 2254(e)(2).

Second, the state contends that the state court’s decision was not an unreasonable application of the Strickland standard.  As an initial matter,  the actions of Pinholster’s lawyers met constitutional standards:  they consulted with both a psychiatrist and Pinholster’s mother.  Moreover, any flaws in trial counsel’s representation would not have changed the outcome of the sentencing phase of the trial in light of the abundant aggravating evidence proffered by the prosecution.

Pinholster defends the Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision in his merits brief.  First, he defends its determination that his counsel performed inadequately, emphasizing his lawyers’ minimal preparation for the sentencing phase of the trial.  The mitigating evidence that competent counsel would have discovered – which was later introduced at the federal evidentiary hearing – so changes the profile presented to the jury that there is a reasonable probability that the jury would not have returned a death sentence if it had been presented with it.

Second, he claims that the state court’s decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of federal law under § 2254(d)(1) in light of the evidence introduced at the evidentiary hearing.  He thus rejects the state’s contention that a federal court should first consider whether the state court’s decision was unreasonable – asking why, if a habeas petitioner “could show without any further factual development that the state-court denial of his claim was unreasonable, what need would he have for a federal evidentiary hearing?”  Instead, on his view, a federal court may (subject to the limitations of § 2254(e)(2)) first order an evidentiary hearing and admit new evidence; then it may then consider this evidence in determining whether the state court’s decision was unreasonable.

Recommended Citation: Matthew Seligman, Argument preview: A Tale of Two Williamses, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 8, 2010, 5:46 PM),