Prosecutors are “servant[s] of the law” and should “prosecute with earnestness and vigor.” Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935). But though the prosecutor “may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones.” Id.
More than fifty years ago, Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963), established that a prosecutor’s suppression of material evidence favorable to the accused amounts to a foul blow. An actionable Brady violation—where the government withholds evidence that reasonably probably changes the outcome of a defendant’s trial—deprives the defendant of a fundamentally fair trial. Yet because of the nature of a Brady violation, a defendant, through no fault of his own, may not learn that such a violation even occurred until years after his conviction has become final and he has already filed a motion for post-conviction relief concerning other matters.
Meanwhile, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) imposes limitations on post-conviction relief a prisoner may obtain. This case examines whether under those limitations, a Brady claim can ever be cognizable in a second-in-time post-conviction motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 if it does not meet the criteria under the statute’s “gatekeeping” provision, 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h). And that presents a question of first impression in this Circuit.
But that the case involves an issue of first impression does not necessarily mean we are writing on a clean slate. As it turns out, our Circuit has already written all over this slate. Indeed, we decided this issue’s fraternal twin—whether a Brady claim can ever be cognizable in a second-in-time 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition if it does not meet any of the criteria under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(3)(A)—in Tompkins v. Secretary, Department of Corrections, 557 F.3d 1257 (11th Cir. 2009). Because we cannot distinguish Tompkins’s reasoning from the facts or law at issue here, our Circuit’s prior-precedent rule binds us to apply Tompkins’s rule: a second-in-time collateral motion based on a newly revealed Brady violation is not cognizable if it does not satisfy one of AEDPA’s gatekeeping criteria for second-or-successive motions.
Though we have great respect for our colleagues, we think Tompkins got it wrong: Tompkins’s rule eliminates the sole fair opportunity for these petitioners to obtain relief. In our view, Supreme Court precedent, the nature of the right at stake here (the right to a fundamentally fair trial), and the Suspension Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Art. I, § 9, cl. 2, do not allow this. Instead, they require the conclusion that a second-in-time collateral claim based on a newly revealed actionable Brady violation is not second-or-successive for purposes of AEDPA. Consequently, such a claim is cognizable, regardless of whether it meets AEDPA’s second-or-successive gatekeeping criteria.
Petitioner-Appellant Gino Scott’s Brady claim may or may not be an actionable Brady violation. But we think that the district court in the first instance should have the chance to address that question by determining whether Scott’s Brady claim is, in fact, actionable—a question the district court never had reason to reach. Tompkins’s rule precludes this from happening because it prohibits second- in-time collateral petitions based on all types of Brady claims—actionable and inactionable, alike—simply because they are Brady claims.
Establishing the correct rule and framework for determining whether any particular second-in-time collateral motion based on a Brady claim is cognizable is critically important to maintaining the integrity of our judicial system. No conviction resulting from a fundamentally unfair trial should be permitted to stand.1 And when a petitioner could not have reasonably been expected to discover an actionable Brady violation before filing his first federal collateral- review motion, precluding the filing of a second-in-time petition addressing the newly discovered violation is doubly wrong. It rewards the government for its unfair prosecution and condemns the petitioner for a crime that a jury in a fair trial may well have acquitted him of. This not only corrodes faith in our system of justice, but it undermines justice itself, and it cannot be allowed. So we urge the Court to rehear this case en banc to establish the rule that our Constitution and Supreme Court precedent require.
1. See generally Angela J. Davis, The Legal Profession’s Failure to Discipline Unethical Prosecutors, 36 Hofstra L. Rev. 275, 279-80 (2007) (collecting studies finding alarming rates of Brady violations resulting in criminal convictions).
UPDATE — It’s important decision day at the 11th Circuit. On the other end of the spectrum, Judge William Pryor writes this opinion in U.S. v. Toucet, holding that no reasonable suspicion is required to search a cell phone at the border. Pryor acknowledges that his opinion conflicts with the 4th and 9th Circuits on this issue. Looks like it will be headed up to the Supreme Court as the next big case dealing with cell phones. Meantime, we are still waiting for Carpenter.