Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A (Small) Victory for the Right to Federal Habeas

Last month, the Supreme Court issued a decision that marks a victory for death row inmates in post-conviction appeals. The case of Maples v. Thomas presented a particularly appalling case of ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel. Cory Maples, an Alabama death row inmate, had been represented pro bono in his state post-conviction proceedings by two attorneys from the New York offices of Sullivan & Cromwell (Alabama is the only state that does not provide court-appointed counsel in post-conviction). Maples was seeking state post-conviction relief on grounds that his trial counsel had been ineffective. While Maples’s petition was pending in the state trial court, his attorneys left Sullivan & Cromwell and did not inform Maples or the court that they would no longer serve as his counsel. The Alabama trial court denied Maples’s petition and sent notice of the order to his attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell. The mail was returned, unopened, to the trial court clerk, who took no further action. In the meantime, the 42-day period Maples had to file an appeal expired.

An Alabama Assistant Attorney General sent a letter to Maples, informing him that he had missed the deadline to file an appeal in the state court and that he had four weeks remaining to file a federal habeas petition. Maples filed a petition for federal habeas relief, but the District Court denied his petition on the grounds that the issue was procedurally defaulted because he had failed to timely appeal the state trial court’s order. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, reversed the Eleventh Circuit, holding that Maples had shown the requisite cause to excuse his procedural default. Generally, a federal court may not review a habeas petition when a state court has declined to address the claims raised because the prisoner failed to meet a state procedural requirement. This procedural bar may be lifted only where the prisoner can show cause for the state court procedural default. The Supreme Court has consistently held that attorney negligence in post-conviction proceedings does not qualify as cause. However, the Court held that the exceptionally egregious facts of Maples’s case constituted cause for the procedural bar. A client, the Court held, “cannot be charged with the acts or omissions of an attorney who has abandoned him.”

The victory of Maples may be a small one. It’s likely the holding will be narrowly applied only to cases as extraordinary as that of Cory Maples. But in the realm of federal habeas, where procedural defaults have become the norm and substantive review of the merits the exception, any progress in the rights of indigent petitioners is certainly noteworthy.

On the same day the Supreme Court heard oral argument for Maples, it also heard oral argument for Martinez v. Ryan. Martinez presents the question whether a prisoner has a right to effective assistance of state habeas counsel where state habeas presents the first opportunity to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim. The Court has yet to issue its opinion in Martinez. Here’s hoping the Court will continue on the trajectory of upholding, rather than constricting, the rights of indigents in post-conviction proceedings.  

1 comment:

  1. It is incredible with hundreds of attorneys, that Sullivan & Cromwell did not assign new attorneys to the case. However, the good part is the defeat turned out to make good case law.
    Darren Chaker