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Habeas corpus review under 28 U.S.C.S. § 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.
Respondent Scott Lynn Pinholster was convicted in state court of murder and other offenses and was sentenced to death, but the respondent asserted that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in the penalty phase of his trial. Upon the grant of a writ of certiorari, petitioner prison warden challenged the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which upheld a grant to the respondent of a writ of habeas corpus. The petitioner warden contended that the respondent prisoner's evidence of mitigation which counsel failed to provide during the death penalty phase was improperly considered on federal habeas review, and that in any event, the respondent prisoner failed to show ineffective assistance of counsel.
Was the respondent prisoner entitled to habeas relief?
The U.S. Supreme Court held that habeas corpus review under 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254(d)(1) was limited to the record that was before the state court which adjudicated the prisoner's claim on the merits, and on the record before the state court, the prisoner was not entitled to habeas relief. In applying the habeas standards of whether the state court reached a decision which was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, federal law, or an unreasonable determination of the facts, review was limited to the law and record available to the state court at the time its decision was made. Further, the deference due to the state court's findings and the strong presumption that counsel acted competently indicated that the summary denials of the prisoner's state habeas petitions were properly based on the lack of a showing that the marginally mitigating evidence was improperly, rather than strategically, withheld by counsel.