If you are a Florida criminal defense lawyer that handles federal habeas petitions in capital cases, the United States Supreme Court has issued an opinion that you may be interested in reading. In Martel v. Clair, No. 10-1265, the Court held that motions to substitute counsel brought under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(e) should be evaluated using the same “interests of justice” standard applied in non-capital cases under a 18 U.S.C. § 3006A. In so doing, the Court agreed with Clair, not the State of California, as to the standard that should be applied.
However, the Court went on to hold that Clair failed to show that the District Court abused its discretion when it denied Clair’s motion to substitute counsel. In support of such holding, the Court reasoned that (1) during the 10 year period that Clair’s habeas petition was being litigated, Clair had filed, then dropped, several previous motions to substitute counsel; (2) the Court had already held an evidentiary hearing and entertained substantial post-hearing briefing; (3) because the motion for substitution of counsel claimed that new evidence had been discovered, granting Clair’s motion would mean that the District Court would have had to allow Clair to either amend his habeas petition, and allow a stay of the petition to allow Clair to exhaust his remedies in State court; and, (4) by the time that Clair had filed his motion to substitute counsel, the District Court had already ruled that further submissions would not be permitted.
The end result of the case may seem harsh. After all, the Supreme Court affirmed the District Court’s denial of Clair’s motion to substitute counsel, observing that “[t]he court was not required to appoint a new lawyer just so Clair could file a futile motion.” Clair, No. 10-1265, slip op. at pg. 16. However, attorneys familiar with capital cases and habeas proceedings should not be surprised that the Court had to call an end to the litigation at some point in time.