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Monday, January 23, 2012

Maples v. Thomas, 565 U.S. ___ (2012)

In 1997, Cory R. Maples was tried for the murder of Stacey Alan Terry, and Barry Dewayne Robinson.  He was represented by two state-appointed attorneys, neither of whom had penalty-phase capital litigation experience.  Compensation for both attorneys was capped at $1,000 plus $40 per hour of in-court time.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death.  Maples appealed, and his conviction was affirmed by the state intermediate and supreme courts.

Maples then filed a collateral attack on his conviction, alleging that his inexperienced and ineffective ill-compensated attorneys provided ineffective assistance. At the time, however, Alabama did not appoint attorneys for collateral appeals, even in capital cases.  Instead, Maples was represented by pro bono attorneys from the New York office of Sullivan & Cromwell.

The trial court denied Maples collateral petition for post-conviction relief.  Before an appeal was filed, however, his pro bono attorneys left the firm; one for a federal clerkship, and another for the European Commission in Belgium.  Neither attorney informed Maples of their departure, and neither attorney petitioned the trial court for leave to withdraw as counsel.

Because Maples' attorneys had left the firm, they failed to receive notice of the trial court's denial of relief, and never filed an appeal.  Instead, Maples' time for appeal lapsed, and his right to appeal was waived.  The state attorney general's office contacted Maples directly, and informed him of the waiver, but pointed out that federal habeas relief continued to be available to him for just four weeks.  If he did not timely file for habeas relief he would, presumably, be executed.

Maples' family received a copy of the AG's letter and contacted Sullivan Cromwell.  Prompted by their call, three new Sullivan Cromwell attorneys filed their appearances with the Alabama trial court -- although they were not barred in Alabama -- and asked the trial court to reissue it's order denying Maple's collateral appeal and, thereby, restarting the clock on his time to appeal.  The trial court declined to engage in what it described as "subterfuge."  The intermediate appellate and state supreme courts affirmed.

Maples then sought habeas relief in the federal courts.  The District Court concluded, however, that he had forfeited his right to challenge effective assistance of counsel in federal court by failing to properly present the issue to each state court -- that the issue was unexhausted, and therefore procedurally defaulted.  Although the District Court recognized that Maples could overcome that default if he demonstrated "cause," it held that ineffective assistance of collateral-appellate counsel was insufficient to meet that burden.  A divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and, in an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, reversed.  The Court acknowledged that in prior cases it had held that simple ineffectiveness cannot constitute "cause" sufficient to excuse a defaulted claim.  Nevertheless, the Court concluded that default caused by a total abandonment of counsel is an abrogation of the agency relationship between attorney and client and, as a result, the default cannot be attributed to the petitioner himself.  As such, they remanded the case with instructions to consider Maples' ineffectiveness claims on their merits.

The big losers in this case, however, were neither Maples nor the Alabama Attorney General's office: they were Sullivan & Cromwell.  The firm was named a total of 56 times in a 40 page opinion.  The attorneys who failed to give notice of their withdrawal were also identified by name, as well as the three new Sullivan Cromwell attorneys who tried to convince the trial court to engage in a "subterfuge" in order to spare the firm's good name.

In spite of the Court's apparent shock at what occurred in this case, defense counsel's withdrawal without leave is relatively common.  This is particularly true where defendants pay their legal fees in installments, and fail to make a payment midway through trial.

It's tough to fault attorneys who refuse to represent clients that have stopped paying them.  After all, you wouldn't expect your plumber or carpenter to finish a job if you told them that you had decided not to pay.  The Maples decision, however, only underscores a common theme among both the federal and state courts: when an attorney accepts a criminal representation, he is expected to complete it.  With lives on the line, it's hard to argue with the hard-nosed ethics of that position.  By naming names, moreover, Justice Ginsburg has decided to give that policy teeth.

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