March 5, 2012
Supreme Court Action Today: Habeas Corpus
The Supreme Court issued one opinion today. That case is Martel v. Clair (10-1265). It concerns a habeas corpus petition out of California and the Ninth Circuit. Given the track record of the Ninth Circuit in habeas cases, it would be predictable that the Court of Appeals would likely be overturned. The prediction came true again, though the Court agreed with the Ninth Circuit on some points. The issue revolves around standards used in substitution of counsel petitions for indigent defendants in a habeas proceeding. There are two federal statutes that come into play. One is 18 U.S.C. §3599, which allows appointment and substitution of counsel where the defendant is sentenced to death. The problem with that statute is that it does not provide a standard that the District Court can use in evaluating a motion for substitution of counsel. 18 U.S.C. §3006A covers non-capital cases and provides a standard of “interests of justice” in evaluating substitution motions. The Court of Appeals ruled that non-capital standard applies in capital cases. The Supreme Court agreed with that holding given that prior to amendment §3006A applied to both capital and non-capital cases.
The rest of the case gets complicated due to the development of the facts. Clair was sentenced to death in 1984 and commenced habeas corpus proceedings in 1994. The District Court concluded its fact-finding on the habeas petition in February, 2005 when it told the parties that it would not accept additional filings. Clair filed a substitution motion in March of 2005. His basis was that his attorneys were only seeking to overturn his death sentence and not prove his innocence. The District Court held a hearing where Clair’s counsel represented that they had met with Clair and reconciled their differences. The Court then took no action on the substitution motion. Sometime in June, 2005, Clair filed another substitution motion reiterating what he said in his previous motion and adding that his hired private investigator had uncovered physical evidence that had not been processed and that his attorneys were not cooperating with the investigator. The District Court denied the second substitution motion without inquiry and denied his habeas petition at the same time.
The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the lack of an inquiry, the timeliness of the motion, and the reasons of the conflict between Clair and his attorneys as the basis. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the District Court did not abuse its discretion even under an “interest of justice standard. Clair had raised new issues unrelated to his original habeas corpus petition. The litigation had proceeded for ten years. The District Court was at the point of issuing its decision and had indicated that it would not accept any additional filings. As such, the proceedings had ended and a new attorney would not have been able to file new documents. The case was returned to the Ninth Circuit. Justice Kagan wrote for a unanimous court. There were no other opinions in the case. [MG]