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Opinion recap: Limits on new evidence in federal habeas proceedings

Yesterday in Cullen v. Pinholster, the Court clarified the role of new evidence in federal courts’ 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 court’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.  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 court’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 court’s decision. The Court first held that “review under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Because the provision’s language is in the past tense, the Court explained, the statute “requires an examination of the state-court decision at the time it was made.” This construction comports with the “broader context of the statute as a whole, which demonstrates Congress’ intent to channel prisoners’ claims first to the state courts.” Such a conclusion was also consistent with the Court’s precedent, which “emphasize[s] that review under § 2254(d)(1) focuses on what a state court knew and did.” 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 § 2254(d)(1) does not preclude relief.

The Court then turned to, and ultimately dismissed, the suggestion that its construction would render § 2254(e)(2) “superfluous.” The Court explained that “Section 2254(e)(2) continues to have force when § 2254(d)(1) does not bar federal habeas relief” as “a limitation on the discretion of federal habeas courts to take new evidence in an evidentiary hearing.” For example, it “still restricts the discretion of federal habeas courts to consider new evidence when deciding claims that were not adjudicated on the merits in state court” because such claims are not subject to § 2254(d)(1)’s deferential standard of review.

Applying this framework to the facts of the case, the Court next rejected the Ninth Circuit’s alternative holding that Pinholster would have been entitled to relief based on the state-court record alone.  Rather, it held, Pinholster “failed 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.” Under Strickland v. Washington, a prisoner must establish both deficient performance and prejudice. In the death penalty context, the prejudice prong requires he show “that 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.” In the Court’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 “family sympathy” strategy that consisted principally of the testimony of Pinholster’s mother. The Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s reliance on Terry Williams, Wiggins v. Smith, and Rompilla v. Beard to infer a “constitutional duty to investigate.”

Turning to the prejudice prong, the Court held that there “[t]here is no reasonable probability that the additional evidence Pinholster presented in his state habeas proceeding would have changed the jury’s verdict,” because the “new evidence . . . largely duplicated the mitigation evidence at trial.” Considering the extensive aggravating evidence presented by the prosecution, the Court concluded that in light of the “little additional mitigating evidence Pinholster presented in state habeas” here too the California Supreme Court’s decision could not be said to be “unreasonable.”

Justice Alito concurred in the judgment. While he rejected the Court’s construction of the statute limiting the scope of the record in applying § 2254(d), he “would hold that the federal court hearing should not have been held because respondent did not diligently present his new evidence to the California courts.” Thus, in this case, he agreed that the § 2254(d)(1) inquiry should be made on the basis of the evidence before the state court, and “that the decision of the state court represented a reasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent in light of the state-court record.”

Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.  He agreed with the Court’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 Court’s opinion.

Justice Sotomayor filed a lengthy dissent, joined in part by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, in which she disputed both of the Court’s holdings. Writing only for herself, she accused the Court of requiring federal courts to “turn a blind eye to new evidence in deciding whether a petitioner has satisfied §2254(d)(1)’s threshold obstacle to federal habeas relief—even when it is clear that the petitioner would be entitled to relief in light of that evidence.” The Court’s construction of the statute, she reasoned, “ignores a key textual difference between §§2254(d)(1) and 2254(d)(2)” – that only the latter “expressly directs district courts to base their review on ‘the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.’” This difference “provides strong reason to think that Congress did not intend for the §2254(d)(1) analysis to be limited categorically to the ‘evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 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 § 2254(d)(1) on the basis of the state-court record. In her view, “the overwhelming mitigation evidence that was not before the jury” would have “destroyed the [relatively] benign conception of [Pinholster’s] upbringing presented by his mother.” For this reason, she argued “[f]airminded jurists could not doubt that, on the record before the California Supreme Court, ‘there [was] a reasonably probability that at least one juror would have struck a different balance.’”

Recommended Citation: Matthew Seligman, Opinion recap: Limits on new evidence in federal habeas proceedings, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 5, 2011, 4:17 PM),