January 18, 2012
Supreme Court Action: Ineffective Assistance, Federal Question Jurisdiction, and the (Shrinking) Public Domain
The Supreme Court issued three opinions this morning. The first is Maples v. Thomas (10-63). Maples was convicted of murder in Alabama and sentenced to death. He sought post-conviction relief in Alabama state courts as represented by two pro bono attorneys associated with Sullivan & Cromwell. These two engaged an Alabama attorney to move their admission to the court pro hac vice, but the Alabama attorney would have no other role in Maples’ case. The two attorneys subsequently left Sullivan & Cromwell and their new employment effectively precluded them from representing Maples. They did not, however, tell anyone, let alone Maples or the court.
The Alabama court denied Maples’ petition and notice was sent to his attorneys of record at their Sullivan & Cromwell address. The notice was returned to the clerk unopened. The Alabama attorney also received a copy but did nothing. Maples consequently missed his filing period for a notice of appeal. The Alabama Attorney General’s office was kind enough to tell Maples that he had four weeks to file a federal habeas corpus petition. Petitions were filed to restart the state appellate process, which were denied. Maples then filed a federal habeas corpus petition which was also denied because of the procedural default in state court.
The Supreme Court held that under agency principles the omissions of an attorney can bind a client, but not when an attorney effectively abandons the client. The relationship is severed under these circumstances. Cause for procedural default exists when something external to the petitioner that cannot be attributed to him impedes his effort to comply with a state procedural rule. This is one of those situations. Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Thomas. They would hold no relief is available because there is no right to counsel at this stage of the proceedings.
The second case is Mims v. Arrow Financial Services LLC (10-1195). The case involves federal court jurisdiction under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA). The statute bans certain telemarketer practices. Mims received automated calls from Arrow concerned a debt and he sued in federal court under the Act. Its provisions give the states the ability to seek relief in federal court and allow individuals a private right of action in state courts. The question was whether the private right of action was exclusive to state court jurisdiction.
The Court said the statute did not strip federal courts under their §1331 federal question jurisdiction. Mims’ claim arises under the laws of the United States and despite the language allowing suit in state court, Congress could have been more explicit in limiting jurisdiction to state courts. There is some interesting language about legislative history near the end of the opinion. Arrow cited statements on the floor of the Senate from Senator Hollings, the bill’s sponsor praising the private right of action in state court. The Supreme Court dismissed this as the statement made no mention of federal jurisdiction. The Court stated:
First, the views of a single legislator, even a bill’s sponsor, are not controlling.
* * *
Second, Senator Hollings did not mention federal-court jurisdiction or otherwise suggest that 47 U. S. C. §227(b)(3) is intended to divest federal courts of authority to hear TCPA claims.
* * *
Third, even if we agreed with Arrow that Senator Hollings expected private TCPA actions to proceed solely in state courts, and even if other supporters shared his view, that expectation would not control our judgment on 28 U. S. C. §1331’s compass.
Let’s just say that the utility of legislative history is in the eye of the beholder with the Court squarely holding the power to behold. Justice Ginsburg wrote for a unanimous Court.
The third case, Golan v. Holder (10-545) answers the question as to whether Congress has the power to restore copyright protection to items that have fallen into the public domain. From the Court’s perspective it’s a big fat yes. Congress passed a law amending §514 of the Copyright Act to conform to requirements of the Berne Convention. These requirements necessitated reciprocal coverage of foreign works if they were still covered by copyright protection in their originating countries. Affected plaintiffs complained that Congress exceeded its authority under the Copyright Clause in passing the amendment.
The Court said no, that under Eldred v. Ashcroft, the Court said Congress has pretty much free reign to specify what is protected, when, and for how long. Congress has passed private bills, for example, that restored protection to specific intellectual property. The public domain is hardly untouchable by Congress under these circumstances. It is ironic that this decision was released on SOPA protest day. Justice Ginsburg wrote for the majority, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Sotomayor. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Alito. Justice Kagan did not participate. [MG]