At SCOTUS, Thomas v. Sotomayor: Dueling Over a Convict’s Bad Childhood

The Supreme Court decided a little reported dispute this week involving a California prisoner’s claim of deficient legal representation. It revealed justices’ competing views of when a state prisoner merits a federal hearing and how bad a childhood might have to be to make a difference in a death sentence.

By a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled against Scott Pinholster, convicted in 1984 of the brutal murders of two men, and reinstated the death sentence a lower U.S. appeals court had set aside. The issue was whether Pinholster’s trial lawyers had wrongly neglected to investigate his troubled childhood and psychiatric problems that, if related to the jury, might have gotten him a life sentence, rather than death.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by fellow conservatives, wrote the Court’s opinion, reversing the 9th Circuit’s view that evidence of Pinholster’s mental problems could have brought Pinholster leniency. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the main opinion for liberal dissenters. In one of the more caustic verbal swaps this term, the two justices accused each other of dishonoring precedent and a “fundamental misunderstanding” of standards for a prisoner challenging the constitutionality of his case. Sotomayor questioned how fair-minded jurists could reach the “harsh” result of the majority. Thomas deemed some of her reasoning “grounded in little more than her own sense of ‘prudence.’”

And the first Hispanic justice and second African American justice, who both saw more poverty in their youth than most members of the bench, drew contrasting views of Pinholster’s childhood. This was how Thomas recounted it: “When he was very young, Pinholster suffered two serious head injuries, first at age 2 or 3 when he was run over by a car, and again at age 4 or 5 when he went through the windshield during a car accident. When he was 5, Pinholster’s stepfather moved in and was abusive, or nearly so.”

Or nearly so? That’s not how Sotomayor saw it. First, she noted that in the first car accident, Pinholster’s mother ran over him. Regarding the stepfather, Sotomayor added that he “beat (Pinholster) several times a week, including at least once with a two-by-four board. There was so much violence in the home that Pinsholster’s brother dreaded coming home each day. Pinholster’s half sister was removed from the home as a result of a beating by his stepfather.” Sotomayor also wrote that, “a relative remembered seeing the children mix together flour and water in an attempt to get something to eat.”

A key question was whether, given the mitigating evidence of his background, there was a “reasonable probability” that at least one juror would have thought Pinholster did not deserve the death sentence. Yes, insisted Sotomayor, joined in her dissenting opinion by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. “Had counsel conducted an adequate investigation, the judge and jury would have heard credible evidence showing that Pinholster’s criminal acts and aggressive tendencies were attributable to a disadvantaged background, or to emotional and mental problems,” Sotomayor wrote. “They would have learned that Pinholster had the kind of troubled history we have declared relevant to assessing a defendant’s moral culpability.” (Justice Stephen Breyer dissented separately.)

Justice Thomas (joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito) concluded Pinholster should never have won a new hearing in federal court. Thomas said that that telling the jury about all the Pinholster family problems might, in fact, have backfired. Wrote Thomas: “The new evidence relating to Pinholster’s family — their more serious substance abuse, mental illness, and criminal problems — is … by no means clearly mitigating, as the jury might have concluded that Pinholster was simply beyond rehabilitation.”

 Two views: simply beyond reconciliation.