The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday centering on a death row inmate’s claim that his lawyers from an elite law firm abandoned his case without notice , causing him to miss a critical deadline for appeal.
The case centers on Alabama death row inmate Cory Maples who was convicted of murdering Stacy Alan Terry and Barry Dewayne Robinson II in 1995.
After his conviction Maples thought he had won the lottery when two out -of -state lawyers from an elite New York law firm offered to represent him in post conviction proceedings. Maples hoped for a new trial based on claims that his trial lawyers had been ineffective for failing to present evidence of his history of mental health problems as well as his intoxication at the time of the crime.
After months of hearing nothing on his case Maples learned that he’d missed an important appeals deadline. Worse, he learned that the two lawyers he thought were representing him had left their top shelf firm, Sullivan & Cromwell , and failed to properly notify the court or their client.
Maples later learned that the clerk of the court had sent the lawyers a notice of the deadline, but the notices had come back unopened in the mail with the words “return to sender” and “left the firm” written on the envelope.
Upon learning that his lawyers had missed the deadline Maples scrambled to have the deadline extended given the circumstances. But the courts rejected his request for an extension and reaffirmed their dismissal of his case.
Maples’ new attorney, former Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre , told the justices on Tuesday that his client’s case should not have been dismissed.
Garre said that the former lawyers actions rose “to the level of abandonment” and called the facts of the case “shocking” and “extraordinary.”
Garre pointed out that not only did the two lawyers abandon their client, and fail to notify the court that they were no longer following the case, but when the Clerk of the Court received both notices back marked unopened he did nothing to follow up the issue.
“I don’t think anyone who actually desired to provide notice with an inmate –with his life on the line– would do nothing reasonably in that situation,” Garre said.
Garre acknowledged that there was a local counsel assigned to the case, but he said that the lawyer was merely serving as a liaison to the New York lawyers as was then required by Alabama law. Garre said that the local attorney had no real role in the case and when he received notice of the appeals deadline he took no action because he believed the matter was being handled by the New York lawyers.
All the while Maples had no idea that his case had fallen through the cracks.
“Mr. Maples was sitting in a prison cell in Alabama under the reasonable belief that he was represented by counsel who would appeal if an adverse decision was issued.” Garre said.
But in court, John C. Neiman Jr., the Solicitor General of Alabama, seized upon the fact that there was indeed a local lawyer involved who had been notified of the appeals deadline. He argued the lower courts had fulfilled their obligation to inform the counsel and that once the clerk of the court saw that the local counsel had received notice of the pending deadline, the clerk had no reason to pursue the fact that he had received the “return to sender” letters back in the mail.
Nieman’s suggestion seemed to irritate Justice Elena Kagan.
She asked Nieman if he had been involved in a similar case where a letter was sent off to the principal adversaries and was returned unopened he might not ask himself, “Huh, should I do anything now?”
Chief Justice John Roberts asked for evidence from Neiman that the local counsel had actually done anything pertinent to the case. “You still haven’t told me one thing he did” Roberts said.
And Justice Samuel Alito asked why Alabama would not have consented to Maples’ attorneys filing an out-of time appeal, given the circumstance of the case.
“There is no possibility under Alabama rules for an out-of-time appeal in this circumstance? No extension?” Alito asked
“The holding of the Alabama courts here,” Nieman said, “was that this would not be an appropriate circumstance for an out-of-time-appeal.”
Alito broke in: “Is that a discretionary matter or is that a flat rule, once you passed a certain time deadline, you are out of luck. There is no opportunity where there’s good cause for an extension?”
Justice Antonin Scalia was the only Justice who seemed to speak up in support of Alabama. He attacked the notion that the local attorney had no responsibility to watch over the client. “You want us to believe that the local attorney” Scalia asked” has no responsibility for the case at all?”
In briefs filed with the Court Neiman acknowledged that “On the face of it, it is hard not to feel a little sorry ” for Maples. But he reiterated the fact that Maples does not deny killing two people and that he received a “full determination of the merits of his claims ” in state court.