This week, the New York  Times wrote a short article informing its readers of the case that is going before the United States Supreme Court out of California, Martel v. Clair (you can follow the case online via the USSCt docket ).  The High Court will be considering the following issue – and only this issue – in its review:

Whether a condemned state prisoner in federal habeas corpus proceedings is entitled to replace his court-appointed counsel with another court-appointed lawyer just because he expresses dissatisfaction and alleges that his counsel was failing to pursue potentially important evidence.

This week, the Justices heard oral argument in this case and next week, you can listen to that December 6, 2011, oral argument online here.   The State of California (technically, warden Michael Martel) was represented by Ward A. Campbell, Supervising Deputy Attorney General and the Death Row Inmate Kenneth Clair was represented by Seth P. Waxman out of Washington, D. C.

The Facts Behind Martel v. Clair

Back in 1987, California Death Row Inmate Kenneth Clair was sentenced to die for the sexual assault / strangulation death of Linda Faye Rodgers.  After the trial, Mr. Clair filed a petition for habeas corpus and a federal public defender was appointed to represent Clair in this federal court proceeding.  

Clair’s efforts in the federal system and state system went forward for many years.  The federal district judge ruled that the federal proceedings would be stayed while Clair’s state remedies were "exhausted" including those on claims raised after the murder trial was done.   At the California Supreme Court, a second habeas corpus request by Clair was denied, and the ball was back in the court of the federal system to seek relief.

In June 2005, Clair wrote a letter requesting a new lawyer and sent it to the federal judge, the second letter that Clair had sent to the court.  Clair had already written the judge to voice his concerns and complaints about his lawyer and what Clair saw as his attorney’s neglect and disinterest in his case.  

The federal court had done something after that complaint letter: the attorney was questioned and the lawyer responded to the court by reporting that there had been a conference with their client, Mr. Clair, and that the attorney-client relationship would be continuing.  The conference happened in April 2005. 

Key to the second Clair letter: Clair told the court that a private investigator had discovered physical evidence that had never been tested and that his lawyer hadn’t looked it over, much less had it tested or tried to introduce it at trial.  The investigator also wrote the judge, and confirmed what the Death Row inmate had written.  

Here’s the shocker:  after getting that PI letter and the inmate’s letter, the federal judge didn’t move forward to investigate what this was all about.  The  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ultimately ruled that the district court abused its discretion and now, the case is before the High Court for review.

From the briefing:

At the end of ten years of capital federal habeas corpus proceedings in the district court, respondent suddenly complained about and sought replacement of his court-appointed public defender with a new appointed lawyer. The district court refused, explaining that "it appears Petitioner’s counsel is doing a proper job" and that "[n]o conflict of interest or inadequacy of counsel is shown," and thereupon issued its ruling denying habeas corpus relief.

On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit appointed a replacement lawyer, vacated the judgment, and remanded for further proceedings to allow the new lawyer to raise additional claims for relief. The Ninth Circuit explained that no showing of ineffectiveness of counsel was required, for it was enough that Clair had expressed "dissatisfaction" and had alleged that the public defender was failing to pursue potentially important evidence. 


Court Appointed Death Penalty Counsel – Huge Duty With Insufficient Funding

Last year, we discussed how California in particular was in crisis because of a funding problem in death penalty defense representation, "Lawyers Cannot Afford to Take Death Row Appeals in California."  

Is the fact that this lawyer had to operate on a shoestring budget (and that’s being kind) a factor in the Clair case?  

And, assuming this to be true, then will the U.S. Supreme Court take this opportunity to address the indigent defense crisis in this country, where attorneys are appointed to represent defendants but are not given sufficient funding to do their job?  

The High Court arguably already had this opportunity back in the summer of 2010 and failed to address this problem.  We’ll keep our fingers crossed, but we’re not optimistic.  Money isn’t the focus of the pending case – and there are lots of arguments against the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on all sorts of reasons, including an "administratively unworkable result" challenge by a bunch of state attorneys general, including Florida’s Pam Bondi (read the amicus brief here).