Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Maples v. Thomas. At issue was whether the petitioner had shown cause to excuse procedural default of his habeas appeal. Procedural default bars federal courts from hearing claims where the petitioner has failed to follow reasonable state procedures.

In 1997, Cory Maples was convicted of murdering two men. After an Alabama jury voted 10-2 to impose the death penalty, two associates at Sullivan and Cromwell took up Maples’ appeal. The associates presented an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, arguing that Maples’ attorney had not presented salient evidence during the sentencing hearing. An Alabama court rejected those claims, and Maples had 42 days to appeal. The appeal was never filed because each S&C attorney left the firm. As Justice Sotomayor noted in oral arguments, both attorneys accepted positions that barred continued representation of their client. Neither attorney notified their client or the courts of their departure. As a result, the appeals period lapsed and Maples defaulted his right to further proceedings.

The narrative contains other, complicating, wrinkles. Most notably, the S&C attorneys worked with local counsel, whose role in representing Maples is undeveloped in the record. Maples maintains that local counsel merely facilitated admission of S&C’s pro bono counsel. Alabama maintains that its rules of criminal procedure mandate more, and that as counsel of record, local counsel was an agent of Maples. The agency question is a pivotal one: If local counsel was acting as Maples’ agent, then counsel’s failure to file a timely appeal is attributable to Maples. To that end, the petitioner noted that local counsel’s affidavit betrays local counsel’s limited role. Justice Roberts pursued that point vigorously, asking the state’s attorney to identify, in fact, particular actions taken by local counsel. No response was given.

During oral argument, Justice Scalia pushed the petitioner by asserting that the constitution and federal rules of criminal procedure are silent on notice. The petitioner responded that Mullane established a due process interest in notice, an interest particularly compelling in the context of capital cases. Justice Scalia was also skeptical of another argument. The petitioner noted that state prosecutors had sent a letter regarding default directly to Maples, rather than to local counsel or the S&C attorneys. Seizing on that point, the petitioner argued that state prosecutors must have known Maples’ attorneys had abandoned him. Justice Scalia, however, described the letter as an “extraneous volunteered statement” with no legal import. Chief Justice disagreed, implying that the correspondence betrayed knowledge that Maples was insufficiently represented.

Other Justices were less critical of the petitioner and more frustrated by the state. As Adam Liptak notes, Justice Alito asked Alabama’s solicitor general why a technical claim against Maples was being pursued. Justice Kennedy pursued that inquiry as well, raising the state’s discretion to waive procedural default. Justices Kagan and Breyer questioned the adequacy of the record. The former asserted that conflicts of interest left the record “irretrievably corrupted” and the latter suggested that remand is necessary to develop local counsel’s role.

The Court’s primary reservations about finding for the petitioner appeared animated by risk aversion. Justice Alito worried that the petitioner was “pushing the court to consider rules that would have far-reaching effect.” Much of this conversation centered on the Court’s finding in Holland v. Florida. There, seven Justices held that equitable tolling is permissible—the suspension of a statute of limitations—where an attorney’s extraordinary misconduct prevents a defendant from appealing in timely fashion. In Maples, the petitioner responded to the Court’s worry about expanding Holland by speculating that Holland relief is rarely given. The petitioner also noted that principles of agency law would cabin the application of a Maples rule. Acknowledging that the threshold showing necessary to show cause is currently and would remain very high, the petitioner helped assuage concern. Justice Alito had worried that layering abandonment on top of ineffective assistance of counsel would fundamentally change the law.

Maples is a critical test of the Court’s willingness to depart from strict formalism and Holland may portend its answer. In Holland the Court found 7-2 for the petitioner. Justice Alito concurred and Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. The oral arguments in Maples appeared to confirm that alignment. After all, despite Justice Alito’s concern, he forcefully asserted that: “Mr. Maples has lost his right of appeal through no fault of his own.”

Further coverage is here. SCOTUSblog has generated fascinating discussion here and has expert analysis here.


UPDATE: The Court has ruled for Maples. Justice Ginsburg wrote for seven justices. As in Holland, Justice Alito concurred and Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. Coverage from NPR