Opinion recap: Limits on new evidence in federal habeas proceedings
on Apr 5, 2011 at 4:17 pm
ï»¿Yesterday in Cullen v. Pinholster, the Court clarified the role of new evidence in federal courtsâ€™ habeas review of state court decisions, while once again reversing a Ninth Circuit grant of relief. The Court first held (by a vote of seven to two) that AEDPA requires federal courts to evaluate the reasonableness of state court decisions on the basis of the record before the state court; federal courts may not consider new evidence developed at an evidentiary hearing in federal court. The Court then held (by a vote of five to four) that Pinholster was not entitled to habeas relief under this framework because the state courtâ€™s rejection of his claim was reasonable in light of the evidence it had before it at the time.
Scott Lynn Pinholster was sentenced to death after his conviction for murdering two men during a robbery. Â After exhausting state collateral proceedings, he sought federal habeas relief on the ground that his trial counsel was ineffective because he failed to introduce important mental health mitigating evidence during the penalty phase. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court granted relief on the basis of mental health evidence that had been developed in that hearing, but which had never been presented to the state courts. After a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed, the Ninth Circuit granted rehearing en banc and reinstated the district courtâ€™s decision, in part on the basis of evidence first adduced in federal court.
Yesterday, in an opinion by Justice Thomas, the Court reversed the en banc courtâ€™s decision. The Court first held that â€œreview under Â§ 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.â€ Because the provisionâ€™s language is in the past tense, the Court explained, the statute â€œrequires an examination of the state-court decision at the time it was made.â€ This construction comports with the â€œbroader context of the statute as a whole, which demonstrates Congressâ€™ intent to channel prisonersâ€™ claims first to the state courts.â€ Such a conclusion was also consistent with the Courtâ€™s precedent, which â€œemphasize[s] that review under Â§ 2254(d)(1) focuses on what a state court knew and did.â€ Neither Schriro v. Landrigan nor Michael Williams v. Taylor suggest otherwise, the Court reasoned, because both concerned only whether an evidentiary hearing is appropriate assuming that Â§ 2254(d)(1) does not preclude relief.
The Court then turned to, and ultimately dismissed, the suggestion that its construction would render Â§ 2254(e)(2) â€œsuperfluous.â€ The Court explained that â€œSection 2254(e)(2) continues to have force when Â§ 2254(d)(1) does not bar federal habeas reliefâ€ as â€œa limitation on the discretion of federal habeas courts to take new evidence in an evidentiary hearing.â€ For example, it â€œstill restricts the discretion of federal habeas courts to consider new evidence when deciding claims that were not adjudicated on the merits in state courtâ€ because such claims are not subject to Â§ 2254(d)(1)â€™s deferential standard of review.
Applying this framework to the facts of the case, the Court next rejected the Ninth Circuitâ€™s alternative holding that Pinholster would have been entitled to relief based on the state-court record alone.Â Rather, it held, Pinholster â€œfailed to demonstrate that the California Supreme Court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law to his penalty-phase ineffective-assistance claim on the state-court record.â€ Under Strickland v. Washington, a prisoner must establish both deficient performance and prejudice. In the death penalty context, the prejudice prong requires he show â€œthat there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the sentencer . . . would have concluded that the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death.â€ In the Courtâ€™s view, Pinholster had failed to show that the California Supreme Court had unreasonably applied federal law in concluding that his trial counsel performed adequately by pursuing a â€œfamily sympathyâ€ strategy that consisted principally of the testimony of Pinholsterâ€™s mother. The Court rejected the Ninth Circuitâ€™s reliance on Terry Williams, Wiggins v. Smith, and Rompilla v. Beard to infer a â€œconstitutional duty to investigate.â€
Turning to the prejudice prong, the Court held that there â€œ[t]here is no reasonable probability that the additional evidence Pinholster presented in his state habeas proceeding would have changed the juryâ€™s verdict,â€ because the â€œnew evidence . . . largely duplicated the mitigation evidence at trial.â€ Considering the extensive aggravating evidence presented by the prosecution, the Court concluded that in light of the â€œlittle additional mitigating evidence Pinholster presented in state habeasâ€ here too the California Supreme Courtâ€™s decision could not be said to be â€œunreasonable.â€
Justice Alito concurred in the judgment. While he rejected the Courtâ€™s construction of the statute limiting the scope of the record in applying Â§ 2254(d), he â€œwould hold that the federal court hearing should not have been held because respondent did not diligently present his new evidence to the California courts.â€ Thus, in this case, he agreed that the Â§ 2254(d)(1) inquiry should be made on the basis of the evidence before the state court, and â€œthat the decision of the state court represented a reasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent in light of the state-court record.â€
Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.Â He agreed with the Courtâ€™s conclusion that the Section 2254(d)(1) inquiry should be limited to the evidence that was before the state court, but he would have remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for it to apply the standards outlined in the Courtâ€™s opinion.
Justice Sotomayor filed a lengthy dissent, joined in part by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, in which she disputed both of the Courtâ€™s holdings. Writing only for herself, she accused the Court of requiring federal courts to â€œturn a blind eye to new evidence in deciding whether a petitioner has satisfied Â§2254(d)(1)â€™s threshold obstacle to federal habeas reliefâ€”even when it is clear that the petitioner would be entitled to relief in light of that evidence.â€ The Courtâ€™s construction of the statute, she reasoned, â€œignores a key textual difference between Â§Â§2254(d)(1) and 2254(d)(2)â€ â€“ that only the latter â€œexpressly directs district courts to base their review on â€˜the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.â€™â€ This difference â€œprovides strong reason to think that Congress did not intend for the Â§2254(d)(1) analysis to be limited categorically to the â€˜evidence presented in the State court proceeding.â€ And in the second half of her opinion, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, she explained that in her view Pinholster had indeed satisfied Â§ 2254(d)(1) on the basis of the state-court record. In her view, â€œthe overwhelming mitigation evidence that was not before the juryâ€ would have â€œdestroyed the [relatively] benign conception of [Pinholsterâ€™s] upbringing presented by his mother.â€ For this reason, she argued â€œ[f]airminded jurists could not doubt that, on the record before the California Supreme Court, â€˜there [was] a reasonably probability that at least one juror would have struck a different balance.â€™â€