Thursday, October 6, 2011

Maples v Thomas

Corey Maples has terrible luck with lawyers.

The problem started after a night of drinking, when Maples decided to shoot two of his friends execution style. During the trial, his court-appointed lawyers were so inexperienced with capital cases that they admitted to the jury they were "stumbling around in the dark." They also overlooked mentioning his mental health issues and history of drug and alcohol abuse, inevitably leading to a death sentence instead of life in prison.

Things started looking up for Maples when he tried to appeal his sentence by arguing that his trial lawyers were incompetent. Akin to winning the lottery, Maples' case was taken up pro bono by one of the most prestigious firms in the country, Sullivan & Cromwell. Granted, the lawyers who volunteered were junior associates, but they were still associates worth $170,000 a year.

Showing that you still get what you pay for, however, the two attorneys decided to leave for better job offers without finding substitute counsel or even notifying their client. For various reasons, the appeal these attorneys had filed for him was denied and Maples had 42 days to file another argument. The court clerk properly put the denial letter in the mail, and it was returned a short while later with the stamp "Return To Sender -- Left Firm." In what probably involved the clerk nonchalantly shrugging his shoulders, he filed the returned envelope in Maples' folder and left it at that.

After the 42-day appeal period expired, the court sent another letter explaining that his file was now closed. Maples was understandably confused, as he had been under the impression that his fancy lawyers in New York were busy fighting for his appeal. His mother contacted Sullivan & Cromwell, who promptly responded by sending new lawyers scuttling back to court to request an extension that was quickly denied.

Proving that bad luck comes in threes, one more lawyer served to fail Maples. Because Sullivan & Cromwell's attorneys were practicing law in New York, not Alabama, they needed a local attorney to serve as a liaison between them and the court. His only mission was to act in name only; he would not perform any function in the appeal process other than a technicality so that the case could be remotely operated in New York. But when he received the letter stating Maples' appeal had been denied, he declined to notify Maples. To be fair, he was also unaware that Sullivan & Cromwell's attorneys had disowned the case.

This didn't stop Justice Scalia, however, from going all in for the argument that he was responsible for Maples' failure to file in a timely manner.

"You have a local attorney for the case, don't you? And you want us to believe that the local attorney has no responsibility for this case at all?...He has certain responsibilities. It's not up to him to say what his responsibilities are...And if they don't extend even to forwarding notice, even to making sure that the people who were doing the legwork in the case know that the clock is running, my goodness, I can't imagine what his responsibility is."
Tuesday morning's oral argument at the Supreme Court turned into a showdown - seven justices against one as they fought inch by inch to decide if there was cause for an extension. If, as Justice Scalia argued, the local attorney had a responsibility to make sure something was being done for Maples, then he had ineffective counsel, but not cause. If, on the other hand, the state understood that Maples no longer had adequate representation (implying that they knew his attorneys had abandoned the case), then Maples had cause for the extension. The state might have shown its hand when the prosecutor sent Maples a letter in jail advising him of his lost appeal instead of sending it to his attorneys.

Tuesday showed that the Court will rule in Maples' favor, either by telling the lower court to hear Maples' original case about inadequate trial counsel, or just to grant the extension (in which case the lower court could still deny the appeal). In fact, it's likely to end up 7-2 with Justices Scalia and Thomas dissenting as they did in Holland v Florida, a case from the Court's 2010 docket where the attorney's negligence also led to a missed filing deadline.

Above all else, the Supreme Court showed that they were more concerned about the lower court's callous denial for an extension than Sullivan & Cromwell's horrific handling of the case, which in my opinion, is by far the worse offense.

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