Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Pinholster & the Perennial Catch-22



So, what’s a guy to do if his lawyer is ineffective, but state judges won’t let him prove it the only way he knows how: by establishing facts that aren’t part of the existing record? The Sixth Circuit removed all doubt in Ballinger v. Prelesnik, No. 12-1357, and said – basically – nada, so long as the claim was adjudicated on the merits.

In a case originating from Michigan, the Sixth Circuit reiterated Pinholster’s central holding that in federal habeas proceedings, district courts many not expand the record for claims that have been already been given merits review by the state.  Ballinger claimed his attorney was ineffective for failing to call an alibi witness during his double-murder trial.  He retained new counsel before sentencing and proposed to make a record of the IAC claim and alibi defense through a motion for new trial. The trial judge summarily denied the motion, and on direct appeal, Michigan courts rejected Ballinger’s request for an evidentiary hearing. The Court of Appeals then faulted Ballinger for presenting no record evidence to support his IAC claim.

In evaluating the habeas petition, the district court found it unreasonable for Michigan courts to decide the issue with an insufficiently developed record. The court thus held an evidentiary hearing, and after deeming the defense credible, found counsel ineffective and granted the petition.

The Sixth Circuit reversed. It viewed the state court’s discussion of the IAC issue as a "brief but reasoned" adjudication on the merits under Harrington. The Court noted that while it might be tempting to supplement an otherwise sparse trial court record (especially for a diligent petitioner), the plain language of Pinholster and Harrington precludes itAfter viewing the issue with the required AEDPA deference, the Court was unwilling to treat the state court’s resolution of the IAC claim as an unreasonable application of Strickland.  Practioners, beware!

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