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Supreme Court limits federal habeas review

The US Supreme Court [official website] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] in Cullen v. Pinholster [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that review under the federal habeas law is limited to the record that was before the state court, reinstating the death penalty for a convicted man. The court's ruling reversed an en banc decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which held that the evidentiary hearing before a federal habeas court was not barred by section 2254(e)(2) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 USC § 2254 [text]. Based on its holding, the appeals court then considered new evidence adduced during the evidentiary hearing and ultimately concluded that the California Supreme Court [official website] had unreasonably applied clearly established federal law in denying Scott Pinholster's state habeas petition. In reviewing the Ninth Circuit's decision, the Supreme Court first considered whether review under § 2254(d)(1) permits consideration of evidence introduced in an evidentiary hearing before the federal habeas court. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, stated:

We now hold that review under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits. Section 2254(d)(1) refers, in the past tense, to a state-court adjudication that resulted in a decision that was "contrary to", or "involved" an unreasonable application of, established law. This backward looking language requires an examination of the state court decision at the time it was made. It follows that the record under review is limited to the record in existence at that same time—i.e., the record before the state court. This understanding of the text is compelled by "the broader context of the statute as a whole," which demonstrates Congress' intent to channel prisoners claims first to the state courts.
The court then went on to consider whether the Ninth Circuit properly granted Pinholster habeas relief on his claim of penalty-phase ineffective assistance of counsel. Holding that this decision was also in error, Thomas wrote, "[b]ecause Pinholster has failed to demonstrate that the adjudication of his claim based on the state-court record resulted in a decision "contrary to" or "involv[ing] an unreasonable application" of federal law, a writ of habeas corpus "shall not be granted" and our analysis is at an end." Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and concurring the in judgment. Justice Stephen Breyer also filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined in part. In her opinion, Sotomayor disagreed with the court's restrictive interpretation of § 2254(d)(1), arguing that it will result in "federal courts [turning] 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."

Pinholster was convicted of the 1982 killing of two men during a burglary in Los Angeles. During the guilt phase of his trial, Pinholster rejected assistance from attorneys and insisted on representing himself. However, after being informed that the prosecution planned to offer aggravating evidence during the penalty phase to support a sentence of death, Pinholster accepted the trial court's appointment of two attorneys to his case. Pinholster's attorneys moved to exclude aggravating evidence on the ground that the prosecution had failed to provide notice of the evidence to be introduced, but it was later discovered that Pinholster, while representing himself, had in fact received notice and had denied the motion to exclude. The same jury that had convicted Pinholster in the earlier guilt phase of the trial sat for the penalty phase and voted unanimously for death. The California Supreme Court affirmed and subsequently denied two habeas petitions.

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