11th Circuit, Antonin Scalia, Death Penalty, Gregory Garre, Pro Bono, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, SCOTUS, Screw-Ups, Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules on Sullivan & Cromwell’s Mailroom of Death

SCOTUS has spoken on S&C's screw-up.

We’ve previously written about the mailroom of death at Sullivan & Cromwell. To make a long story short (read our prior posts for the full background), a mailroom mix-up at 125 Broad Street caused an Alabama death-row inmate to miss a deadline for filing an appeal. The Eleventh Circuit rejected the condemned man’s attempt to reopen his case.

Presumably feeling bad for what had happened, S&C appealed to the Supreme Court. The firm hired a leading SCOTUS advocate — former Solicitor General Gregory Garre, now a partner at Latham & Watkins — to argue that prisoner Cory Maples shouldn’t forfeit his life because of S&C’s screw-up.

This morning, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Maples v. Thomas. What did the high court have to say?

Here’s the opinion in Maples v. Thomas, via SCOTUSblog, and here’s a summary of the ruling, from the ABA Journal:

Alabama death-row inmate Cory Maples isn’t barred from appealing his conviction because of a blown appeals deadline caused by the departure of his BigLaw pro bono lawyers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 7-2 for Maples, finding there is cause to excuse the procedural default. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion (PDF). A concurring opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. noted Maples had experienced “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune.”

Most people wouldn’t call being represented by one of the world’s preeminent law firms to be “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune,” but there you go.

What was the rationale for RBG’s ruling?

Maples had been represented after his conviction by two pro bono associates with Sullivan & Cromwell in New York and local counsel who said at the outset he would not be doing any substantive work on the case. When the associates left Sullivan & Cromwell, they never notified Maples and didn’t seek leave to withdraw. A ruling denying postconviction relief addressed to the lawyers and sent to the law firm was returned to sender. As a result, no appeal was filed within the deadline.

“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,” Ginsburg wrote. “In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples’ death-cell door.”

Appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, are generally reluctant to excuse procedural defaults. Enforcing the rules regarding timely filing and the proper raising and development of claims is necessary to keep the courts running smoothly. But in cases where the client is effectively abandoned, which is essentially what the S&C lawyers (inadvertently) did to Cory Maples, the default cannot be attributed to, or held against, the client.

This reasoning seems sound enough, and it garnered seven votes at SCOTUS. But not everyone agreed; Justice Scalia dissented, and Justice Thomas joined him.

Does the Supreme Court’s ruling mean that Cory Maples’s death sentence goes away forever? Not necessarily. Even though the Court excused Maples’s failure to file a timely notice of appeal, it did not address the question of prejudice — i.e., whether Maples was harmed by this failure. This issue remains open for decision on remand, when the case goes back to the Eleventh Circuit and the district court.

For now, though, Maples has a new (even if temporary) lease on life. At least one man is getting a spring bonus from S&C.

UPDATE (5 PM): A reader directs our attention to footnote 8 of Justice Ginsburg’s opinion:

The unclear state of the record is perhaps not surprising, given Sullivan & Cromwell’s representation of Maples after the default. As amici for Maples explain, a significant conflict of interest arose for the firm once the crucial deadline passed. Brief for Legal Ethics Professors et al. as Amici Curiae 23–27. Following the default, the firm’s interest in avoiding damage to its own reputation was at odds with Maples’ strongest argument — i.e., that his attorneys had abandoned him, therefore he had cause to be relieved from the default. Yet Sullivan & Cromwell did not cede Maples’ representation to a new attorney, who could have made Maples’ abandonment argument plain to the Court of Appeals. Instead, the firm represented Maples through briefing and oral argument in the Eleventh Circuit, where they attempted to cast responsibility for the mishap on the clerk of the Alabama trial court. Given Sullivan & Cromwell’s conflict of interest, Maples’ federal habeas petition, prepared and submitted by the firm, is not persuasive evidence that Maples, prior to the default, ever “viewed himself” as represented by “the firm,” see post, at 4, rather than by his attorneys of record, Munanka and Ingen-Housz.

This footnote does not place S&C in the best light.

UPDATE (1/19/12): What are the two associates who handled this matter while at S&C, Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz, up to today? Commenters and readers have pointed out to us that Munanka is now a partner at Hogan Lovells in Denver, and Ingen-Housz is a special counsel at Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong.

Maples v. Thomas [Supreme Court of the United States via SCOTUSblog]
Maples v. Thomas [SCOTUSblog]
Death row inmate wins missed deadline case [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]
Supreme Court Rules for Death-Row Inmate Whose BigLaw Lawyers Missed the Appeal Deadline [ABA Journal]

Earlier: Sullivan & Cromwell’s Mailroom of Death: A Law Firm’s Error Could Cost a Man His Life
Sullivan & Cromwell’s Life-or-Death Mistake? Leading law firm blows deadline in death penalty case.

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