Saturday, January 21, 2012

Are Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Scalia the Worst Supreme Court Judges Ever or Just the Worst on the Current Court?

Well, They Could Be Both

Consider the following situationYou have been charged with a capital offense and are subject to the death penalty. You are convicted and given the death penalty. Except maybe, just maybe you didn’t have adequate representation, the legal assistance all defendants in this nation are entitled to.

Maples is arguing that the court-appointed lawyers at his trial, paid $1,000 for their work, were ineffective. He contends the lawyers mounted an incoherent defense and did not try to convince the jury that he may not have been responsible for his actions because of drug and alcohol use that night.

At sentencing, he contends, his attorneys acknowledged their inexperience, telling the jury they “may appear to be stumbling around in the dark.” The jury voted 10 to 2 - the minimum number necessary - to recommend death.

In this situation a person is entitled to appeal the sentence, a pretty important appeal considering the sentence was death.  And after the trial one of the best known firms in the country, Sullivan and Cromwell took over the case.  But what happened next to Maples denied him that right.

The court order denying the motion was mailed to Sullivan and Cromwell offices in New York; instead of passing the mail on to other lawyers at the firm, someone stamped them “Returned to Sender - Attempted Unknown” and, on a letter to Ingen-Housz, “Return to Sender - Left Firm.”

A copy also went to a third attorney - Alabama lawyer John Butler, who signed on to the case as a needed local counsel - but he took no action because the New York lawyers were supposed to take the lead.

The court clerk took no action, either. And Maples didn’t learn of the adverse ruling until August 2003 - a month after the deadline to appeal had passed. After a frantic call from his mother, Sullivan and Cromwell lawyers went to action. But both state and federal courts said they could not waive the deadline.

So Mr. Maples’s was denied his rights through no fault of his own, but fortunately the case went to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court Wednesday ordered a new hearing for an Alabama death-row inmate who missed a critical appeals deadline because his lawyers at a prestigious New York law firm ceased to represent him without telling him or court officials.

The decision was 7 to 2, with even Conservative Justices Alito and Roberts joining in the majority. 

The circumstances surrounding the appeals of Cory R. Maples--which included a mailroom mix-up at the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell that returned unopened an adverse ruling against Maples--created a “veritable perfect storm of misfortune,” according to Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

But the news here is not the decision, it is the dissent, authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Justice Thomas.  They would deny Mr. Maples the chance to argue his case using competent attorney, and condemn him to death because of mistakes by his previous set of supposedly competent attorneys and one of the best law firms in the nation.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said Maples had not been abandoned, but that the lawyers representing him had simply made mistakes. There were other lawyers at Sullivan & Cromwell familiar with Maples’s case, he said, and local attorney Butler should have taken action when he was informed Maples’s petition had been denied.

Scalia said he suspected the majority is “motivated in large part by an understandable sense of frustration” that Alabama did not simply agree to waive Maples missing the deadline for appeal.

But he said the decision “invites future evisceration of the principle that defendants are responsible for the mistakes of their attorneys” and provides a “template” for more challenges.”

We will leave aside the issue of whether or not a person should be denied a fair and impartial trial because a defendant is responsible for the mistakes of his or her lawyers, ( a concept right out of the 16th century) and just raise the question of what kind of persons are Justices Scalia and Thomas who would send a person to their execution without benefit of the full appelate process because his attorneys had a mail room mixup?  

Don’t answer in a room where small children are present.

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