By Burt Rose
On January 18, 2012, the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES issued an Opinion in the matter of CORY R. MAPLES, PETITIONER v. KIM T. THOMAS, COMMISSIONER, ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, 2012 WL 125438, #10-63, on WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT. JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court; only Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented.
Maples was an Alabama capital prisoner sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder of two individuals. At trial, he was represented by two appointed lawyers, minimally paid and with scant experience in capital cases. Maples sought postconviction relief in state court, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel and several other trial infirmities. His petition, filed in August 2001, was written by two New York attorneys serving pro bono, both associated with the same New York-based large law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell. An Alabama attorney, designated as local counsel, moved the admission of the out-of-state counsel pro hac vice. As understood by New York counsel, local counsel would facilitate their appearance, but would undertake no substantive involvement in the case.
In the summer of 2002, while Maples’ postconviction petition remained pending in the Alabama trial court, his New York attorneys left the law firm, and their new employment disabled them from continuing to represent Maples. However, they did not inform Maples of their departure and consequent inability to serve as his counsel. Nor did they seek the Alabama trial court’s leave to withdraw. Neither they nor anyone else moved for the substitution of counsel able to handle Maples’ case.
In May 2003, the Alabama trial court denied Maples’ petition. Notices of the court’s order were posted to the New York attorneys at the address of the law firm with which they had been associated. Those postings were returned, unopened, to the trial court clerk, who attempted no further mailing. With no attorney of record acting on Maples’ behalf, the time to appeal ran out.
Thereafter, Maples petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. The District Court and, in turn, the Eleventh Circuit, rejected his petition, pointing to the procedural default in state court, i.e., Maples’ failure timely to appeal the Alabama trial court’s order denying him postconviction relief even though all parties agree that Maples was blameless for the default.
The sole question for review was whether, on the extraordinary facts of Maples’ case, there was “cause” to excuse the procedural default. Maples maintained that there was, 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. The High court agreed. 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, Justice Ginsburg wrote, “no just system would lay the default at Maples’ death-cell door.” The Court, satisfied that the requisite cause had been shown, reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment.