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A Ninth Circuit Post-Pinholster Case

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In 1988, 12-year-old Cassie Holden was murdered by Jonathan Gentry.  Gentry was sentenced to death.  Trial and two rounds of state court review were completed in 1999.  Then the case took 10 years in federal district court on habeas corpus, about as long as the state trial, direct appeal, and collateral review put together.  This was followed by three years on appeal.

The Ninth Circuit decided the appeal today in Gentry v. Sinclair, No. 09-99021.  The most interesting part of the opinion is the application of Cullen v. Pinholster.  That is the case where the Supreme Court finally clarified what should have been clear since AEDPA was enacted 15 years earlier.  Whether a state court decision is reasonable must be decided on the record before the state court.  A decision cannot be rendered unreasonable by information never presented to the decider. 

The Gentry decision holds that Gentry's ineffective assistance claim was reasonably decided on the merits by the state court, even though the claim in federal court is not exactly the same as the one presented to the state court.  "The district court [had] held that the mental health claim was not factually developed and was thus unexhausted."

Proper application of Pinholster would greatly reduce the need for discovery and evidentiary hearings in federal court.  A "claim" should be understood as the legal basis for overturning a judgment.  Ineffective assistance of counsel is one "claim," at least as to each phase of the trial, regardless of how many failings of counsel are alleged in support of that claim.  If the ineffective assistance claim is made in the state court and reasonably rejected on the record before that court, that is the end of that claim.  See CJLF's brief in Bell v. Kelly.
If and when USDoJ implements Chapter 154, federal district courts will be required to dispose of capital habeas cases in 450 days (about a year and three months) from the date of filing.  That is entirely doable if the courts will limit themselves to what Congress has said they are supposed to do under AEDPA.  Most issues decided in state court can be disposed of in federal court without hearings or discovery, just on the state court decision and record.  Issues not decided in state court can be usually be disposed of on the procedural default rule, with minimal fact-finding.

Federal habeas, Justice Stevens said long ago, "is designed to guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems."  Extreme malfunctions rarely take 10 years to find.  Most of the protracted litigation involves issues that are, at worst, close calls on which reasonable people can differ.  Federal courts can and should respect the limits Congress has placed on their authority and simply stop second-guessing the state courts on such issues.  In the process, the cases will become simpler, faster, and easier, and justice can be carried out within a reasonable time.

1 Comment

It really is interesting how the term "extreme malfunctions" has been expanded to include, for example, a mailroom mixup in a white shoe law firm.

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