On April 4, the Supreme Court decided Cullen v. Pinholster, No. 09-1088, holding that a federal court reviewing a state prisoner's habeas corpus petition is limited by statute to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.

A California jury convicted Scott Lynn Pinholster on two counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death. His trial lawyers had not called a psychiatrist during the penalty phase, although they had consulted with one who had diagnosed Pinholster with antisocial personality disorder and had concluded that Pinholster was not under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance at the time of the murders. In seeking habeas relief in state court on the grounds that Pinholster's trial counsel had failed to adequately investigate and present mitigating evidence during the penalty phase, later lawyers produced school, medical, and legal records and declarations by another psychiatrist who disagreed with the first psychiatrist and diagnosed Pinholster with bipolar mood disorder and seizure disorders. The California Supreme Court twice rejected his claims on the merits. Later, a federal district court held an evidentiary hearing and granted federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. §2254. The Ninth Circuit affirmed in an en banc decision, after considering the new evidence from the district court hearing and concluding that the state supreme court decision "involved an unreasonable application of … clearly established Federal law," as required by the federal habeas statute.

The Supreme Court reversed. In Part II of its decision, the Court held that under the federal habeas statute, review is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits, and that later evidence cannot be considered. It based this holding on the past tense language of the federal statute: "This backward-looking language requires an examination of the state-court decision at the time it was made." In Part III of its decision, the Court held that on the basis of the state-court record, Pinholster had failed to demonstrate that the California Supreme Court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law to his penalty-phase ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. The Court concluded that the original trial counsel had made reasonable tactical decisions under the circumstances.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Kennedy joined in full and in which Justice Alito joined except as to Part II. Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan joined as to Part II. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Ginsburg and Kagan joined as to the dissent on the penalty-phase ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.

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