By Professor Laurie Levenson
Last week, the United States Supreme Court decided Maples v. Thomas, 565 U.S. ___ (2012). Technically, the case was about whether Cory Maples, who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, would be able to overcome a procedural hurdle in the federal habeas corpus laws and seek relief in federal court. The problem arose when Maples' pro bono lawyers from the prestigious law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell abandoned him, causing him to miss the deadline for appealing the denial of his state habeas corpus petition.
The Supreme Court unquestionably reached the right result when it ruled that there was cause for the procedural default and that Maples' lawyers' blunder should not undermine his ability to seek habeas relief. However, what was most interesting about the decision was not the technical legal analysis. It was the language Justice Ginsburg used to emphasize why the Court would be ruling the way it did.
She began her decision by stating that "no just system would lay the default at Maples' death-cell door...." (emphasis added). In other words, it is time to put the "just" back into "justice." The laws are full of procedural hurdles for defendants seeking to attack their convictions, but defendants should not bear the brunt of mistakes committed by their lawyers. This is especially true in a system where some states cap defense attorney fees at $1,000 for out-of-court work and these lawyers are paid only $70 per hour. Clients abandoned by counsel should not be left without recourse. The goal should be a "just "system. That system has costs and it is time to open our eyes to them.
While Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, conservative Justice Samuel Alito concurred. He stated that this case presented the "perfect storm of misfortune" leading to the deprivation of Maples' legal representation. He may be right that this was the perfect storm, but the forecast for future cases does not look particularly sunny. Given the lack of qualified death penalty counsel and the absence of resources to pay them, there will inevitably be more storm clouds ahead.