You may recall that in a previous post dated October 4, 2011, I listed a few federal criminal and habeas cases that I thought South Florida criminal defense and criminal appeals lawyers might want to monitor this Term. Well, so far, the Court has issued opinions in two of the cases. They are:
MAPLES V. THOMAS, No. 10-63, (slip opinion dated January 18, 2012): A win for the habeas petitioner! Maples had been sentenced to death in Alabama and filed postconviction motions alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. While the postconviction motion was pending, the attorneys who had been handling Maples’ case left their firm (Sullivan & Cromwell of New York) for new employment, but never notified Maples of their departure, never moved to withdraw, and never moved to substitute counsel. Maples lost his postconviction motion. A copy of the court order was sent to Maples’ attorneys at their former firm, but the firm returned the mailings, unopened, to the Clerk of Court. The Clerk attempted no further mailing, and Maples’ time for filing further appeals expired. Maples’ subsequent federal habeas petition was denied by the United States District Court on procedural default grounds, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. However, the United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit, finding that Maples had shown the requisite “cause” to excuse the procedural default. In the opinion, the Court described Maples being “blameless,” and, stated, to my amazement:
The sole question this Court has taken up for review is whether, on the extraordinary facts of Maples’ case, there is “cause” to excuse the default. Maples maintains that there is, for the lawyers he believed to be vigilantly representing him had abandoned the case without leave of court, without informing Maples they could no longer represent him, and without securing any recorded substitution of counsel. We agree. Abandoned by counsel, Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time for his state postconviction petition, and he lacked a clue of any need to protect himself pro se. In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples’ death-cell door. Satisfied that the requisite cause has been shown, we reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment.
Why was I amazed at that language? Well, if you’re a criminal defense or criminal appeals lawyer who is familiar with habeas jurisprudence, you know that many times, the individual petitioners are penalized for their counsel’s procedural errors, notwithstanding the fact that the individual petitioners have little to no control over the acts of their attorney. However, here, the Court recognized the practical reality of Maples’ situation, and showed him some leniency by allowing him the chance to litigate another postconviction motion.
GONZALEZ V. THALER, No. 10-895 (slip opinion dated January 10, 2012): This is a very technical, and somewhat dry, opinion. Although the issues specifically framed by the Court were ”(1) whether the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction to adjudicate Gonzalez’s appeal, notwithstanding the §2253(c)(3) defect; and, (2) whether Gonzalez’s habeas petition was time barred under §2244(d)(1) due to the date on which his judgment became final,” the Court addressed several sub-issues, including (a) the effect of defects in certificates of appealability on the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court; (b) the meaning of the term “jurisdictional;” (c) when a State court conviction becomes final for purposes of habeas review; and, (d) timeliness of habeas petitions. The most lively portion of the opinion, as you could have guessed, is Justice Scalia’s dissent. I may not agree with a lot of what Scalia writes, but I have to admit that it takes some truly special talent to make dry jurisdictional arguments worth reading!