Martel v. Clair (10-1265)

Oral argument: 
December 6, 2011

Oral argument: Dec. 6, 2011

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Nov. 17, 2010)

In 1987, a California jury convicted Respondent Kenneth Clair of the murder of Linda Rodgers, sentencing him to death. Clair filed a habeas corpus petition requesting new court-appointed counsel in 1995, but the district court rejected his request. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned the district court’s decision, and remanded to allow Clair’s new attorney to present additional claims. Clair argues that the district court abused its discretion by not properly investigating Clair’s request for substitute counsel, and consequently that he (Clair) must be allowed to make new claims and present additional evidence in the interests of justice. The State of California, however, argues that Clair should not be permitted to circumvent the workings of the justice system by rearguing his case merely because of dissatisfaction with his court-appointed counsel. The Supreme Court’s decision will determine the standard courts use in granting requests from habeas petitioners for substitute counsel, as well as the finality of appellate denials of habeas petitions.

Questions presented

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.

Issues

Whether a state death row inmate is entitled to receive new court-appointed counsel based on claims that his first court-appointed counsel was not investigating facts or pursuing claims that the inmate believes are material to his habeas corpus proceeding.

Facts

Kenneth Clair was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of Linda Rodgers. See People v. Clair, 2 Cal.4th 629, 645 (Cal. 1992). The Supreme Court of California affirmed Clair’s death sentence in 1992. See id. at 646. Clair commenced federal habeas corpus proceedings in 1993; the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted his request for counsel and stayed the execution. See Brief for Petitioner, Michael Martel at 4. After exhausting his state remedies, Clair filed an amended habeas petition. See Brief for Respondent Kenneth Clair at 5. The district court substituted the Federal Public Defender ("FPD") as Clair’s court-appointed counsel in 1998. See id. at 6. With the FPD’s assistance, Clair successfully moved for an evidentiary hearing and discovery. See id. On March 16, 2005, Clair wrote to the district court stating that he no longer wanted the FPD as his court-appointed counsel. See Brief for Petitioner at 5–6. The FPD later notified the court that they had spoken with Clair and that he was willing to have the FPD continue to represent him for the time being. See id. at 6.

On June 16, 2005, Clair wrote another letter to the district court, requesting appointment of new counsel. See id. This letter, similar to his March 16 letter, alleged that the FPD had been repeatedly inattentive to his case. See id. Clair claimed that the FPD had failed to locate an alibi witness, filed disorganized briefs, and decided not to publicize his case. See id. at 6–7. This letter also alleges that the FPD made no effort to analyze newly discovered physical evidence, including biological material and fingerprints, or to present it to the court. See Brief for Respondent at 8–9. On June 30, 2005, the district court denied Clair’s renewed request for substitution of counsel on the ground that the FPD’s representation of Clair did not present any conflicts of interest or inadequacy. See Brief for Petitioner at 7. On the same day, the district court denied Clair’s habeas corpus petition on the merits. See id. Subsequently, Clair filed an appeal seeking review of the denial of substitute counsel. See Brief for Respondent at 10.

On October 21, 2005, the FPD informed the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that its attorney-client relationship with Clair had broken down. See id. The Ninth Circuit regarded the FPD’s statement as a motion to withdraw, and in January 2006 appointed substitute counsel. See id. The new counsel filed a motion for post-conviction relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), requesting that the court vacate the denial of habeas petition so the new counsel could have the new physical evidence analyzed. See id. at 10–11. The district court denied the motion on May 21, 2007. See Brief for Petitioner at 8–9. On November 17, 2011, the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's denial of Clair’s habeas petition. See Clair v. Ayers, 403 Fed.Appx. 276, 279 (2010). The Ninth Circuit found that the district court abused its discretion when it denied Clair’s request for substitute counsel on June 30, 2005. See id. at 278. The Ninth Circuit granted Clair’s motion for new counsel retroactively, ordering the district court to treat Clair’s new counsel as if he were appointed in 2005, and to consider all new submissions as if they were filed prior to the 2005 denial of Clair's habeas petition. See id. at 279.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether a state death row inmate is entitled to replace his court-appointed counsel with another in federal habeas corpus proceedings because he expresses dissatisfaction with his attorney for failing to investigate new evidence.

Discussion

Petitioner Michael Martel, on behalf of the State of California, argues that there should be restrictions on motions to substitute court-appointed counsel in capital federal habeas corpus proceedings under 18 U.S.C. § 3599. See Brief for Petitioner, Michael Martel at 18–19. Martel contends that courts should only grant a motion for substitution of counsel if the defendant shows that the attorney lacked qualifications, that there was a conflict of interest, or that the attorney abandoned the client. See id. at 34–36. On the contrary, Respondent Kenneth Clair argues that, although § 3599 in itself does not explicitly provide a standard according to which motions for counsel substitution can be evaluated, the “interests of justice” standard under 18 U.S.C. § 3006A is consistent with the structure, history and purpose of § 3599, and should properly govern substitution of counsel in capital cases. See Brief for Respondent, Kenneth Clair at 18–19.

Delay of Litigation

Petitioner Martel argues that Clair’s motion for substitution of counsel abuses the writ of habeas corpus and undermines the purpose of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"). See Brief for Petitioner at 19–20. Before the enactment of the AEDPA, Martel contends, courts conducting habeas corpus proceedings were attentive to defendants’ procedural tactics generating frivolous petitions. See id. at 19. He further argues that the AEDPA aims to reinforce the strong federal policy against undue delay of sentence execution. See id. at 20. Martel acknowledges that death row inmates have an incentive to delay federal habeas corpus proceedings in order to delay the execution of the state court’s judgment. See id. at 20. Several states add that allowing counsel substitution motions could allow defendants to continually request new counsel and present new claims if dissatisfied with the outcome of habeas proceedings, imposing an undue burden on states. See Brief Amici Curiae of Florida, et al. in Support of Petitioner at 17.

On the contrary, Clair argues that allowing defendants to file motions for substitution of counsel in habeas proceedings will not cause undue delay. See Brief for Respondent at 31. He contends a court has discretion to consider whether substitution of counsel would delay litigation when deciding a motion to substitute counsel. See id. at 31–32. Clair argues that the amendment of his habeas petition is subject to Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See id. at 42. He contends that Rule 15 affords the district court discretion to either reopen his case or to deny his petition if the court finds that his claim is meritless or that he is acting in bad faith to cause undue delay of state proceedings against him. See id. at 41–42. Clair believes that Rule 15 sufficiently safeguards states' interests in the timely execution of their criminal judgments when a defendant moves to substitute counsel. See id. at 42.

Finality, Comity, and Federalism

Martel argues that Clair’s successive habeas petitions undermine principles of finality, comity, and federalism. See Brief for Petitioner at 33. Several states contend that federalism requires federal courts to defer to state court judgments in criminal proceedings, so that states are afforded opportunities to execute their criminal sentences without undue interference from federal courts. See Brief Amici Curiae of Florida, et al. at 15–16. The states further argue that the delay caused by allowing defendants to substitute counsel is costly for states, because they must re-litigate the defendant's claim and consider new claims or evidence that were not presented at the defendant's trial. See id. at 17. Martel adds that limiting the grounds for substitution of counsel would limit a defendant's ability to undermine and delay pending state proceedings with motions in federal court. See Brief for Petitioner at 31.

Clair argues that his substitution motion does not present a threat to the principles of finality, comity, or federalism. See Brief for Respondent at 31–32. He reasons that, when deciding a motion for substitution of counsel, a habeas court determines whether giving the defendant a new attorney is in the “interests of justice”. See id. at 31–32. Clair contends that the habeas court takes into consideration all interests of both the state and the defendant, including the state's interest in finality. See id. Clair further claims that there exists no evidence showing the “interest of justice” standard causes the delaying tactics that Martel and the states claim. See id. at 32. Clair also asserts that the principles of finality, comity, and federalism underlying the AEDPA do not apply in this case because Clair filed his petition before the AEDPA became effective. See id. at 27.

Analysis

Respondent Kenneth Clair declares that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment and 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) guarantee that criminal defendants will receive the assistance of counsel in both capital cases and habeas corpus proceedings. See Brief for Respondent, Kenneth Clair at 18. However, Petitioner Michael Martel argues that habeas petitioners, even those on death row, are not entitled to the same Sixth Amendment right to effective appointed counsel in proceedings that occur after they have been convicted. See Brief for Petitioner, Michael Martel at 18, 22. Clair contends that a district court may replace appointed counsel upon a defendant’s request under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(e), and that the statute does not clarify what standard the court should use in choosing to grant or deny such a request. Brief for Respondent at 19. Martel argues that the Ninth Circuit, in granting Clair new habeas counsel, improperly looked to the “interests of justice” standard to fill this gap. See Brief for Petitioner at 42.

Congressional Intent

Petitioner Martel asserts that Congress enacted the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") in 1996 to reduce procedural delays and repetitive litigation. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244; Brief for Petitioner at 20. Clair’s disapproval of his public defender’s performance was an inadequate basis to allow for substitution of counsel, according to Martel, particularly if finality is one of the goals of the AEDPA. See Brief for Petitioner at 17. Martel contends that the AEDPA’s distinct rules for appointing qualified counsel demonstrate Congress’s intent to reduce substitution of counsel in death row cases. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(h); Brief for Petitioner at 22, 24–26. According to Martel, Congress intended lasting appointments for post-conviction counsel in order to minimize substitution of counsel. See Brief for Petitioner at 25–26. Martel argues that, because the Supreme Court had already ruled that habeas and post-conviction petitions do not trigger the constitutional entitlement to effective assistance of counsel, Congress did not need to state explicitly that ineffective counsel was not a proper basis to substitute counsel in the AEDPA. Brief for Petitioner at 28.

Clair contends, however, that the Ninth Circuit used the appropriate standard in overruling the district court by looking to the interests of justice, and that this standard fits within the history and intent of 18 U.S.C. § 3599. See Brief for Respondent at 18. Clair argues that Congress indicated the right to appointed counsel was critical for habeas defendants in capital cases by providing such defendants with a statutory right to counsel with special qualifications. See 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(c); Brief for Respondent at 19. Clair points out that Congress wanted capital habeas defendants to benefit from a right to replace appointed counsel that is at least as strong as that granted to non-capital defendants, who are able to substitute counsel at any point in the proceedings if the court finds that such substitution is in the interests of justice. See Brief for Respondent at 19. Clair contends that, before § 3599 was enacted, all defendants—including those in capital cases—were allowed such substitutions, and that Congress certainly did not intend to make it more difficult for capital defendants to seek qualified counsel. See id. at 20–21.

Appropriate Substitution of Counsel

Martel reasons that courts should not allow substitution of counsel to delay proceedings or give convicted prisoners another chance to litigate their case by circumventing AEDPA limitations on subsequent litigation. See Brief for Petitioner at 33. Martel contends that a habeas prisoner must not be allowed to delay litigation through illegitimate requests for substitution of counsel. See id. at 39. Martel argues that courts should consider whether a defendant delayed in voicing concerns about counsel when deciding whether to grant the defendant's motion. See id. at 40. Martel argues that a court should only grant a motion for substitution of counsel if the defendant shows that the counsel he wishes to replace has insufficient qualifications, possesses a significant conflict of interest, or has abandoned his case entirely. See id. at 34. Because Clair did not allege any of these deficiencies in his motion, Martel asserts that his motion was insufficient to justify new counsel. See id. at 41. Martel observes that a habeas motion allows the prisoner even fewer constitutional rights to effective counsel than does an appeal. See id. at 37. Martel asserts that qualified counsel only needs to review the case record independently to avoid abandonment of a client in a habeas proceeding. See id. at 38.

Clair argues that substitution of counsel was entirely appropriate, and that the Ninth Circuit’s remand order was a reasonable remedy. See Brief for Respondent at 39. Because the district court abused its discretion by not investigating the alleged need for new counsel, Clair contends, it is reasonable to treat the substitute counsel as if he were appointed when Clair filed the habeas petition, thus enabling the substitute counsel to submit new claims and evidence. See id. at 39–40. Clair rejects Martel’s assertion that any new claims from Clair should be considered successive petitions under the AEDPA. See id. at 42. Clair reasons that the Ninth Circuit restored him to a position as close as possible to that he was in at the time he requested substitute counsel, when the district court could still entertain new claims from new counsel. See id. Moreover, Clair rejects Martel’s three factors as the only bases for substitution of counsel. See id. at 24. Clair argues that the text of § 3599 allows the court to replace “similarly qualified counsel,” indicating that adequately qualified counsel may still be substituted. See id. at 25. It would be impractical, asserts Clair, for courts to determine case-by-case what it means to “completely abandon” a client or to be statutorily unqualified. See id. Clair argues that the district court must have discretion to exercise its judgment. See id. at 25–26.

The Interests of Justice Standard

Martel claims that, even if the § 3006A “interests of justice” standard used by the Ninth Circuit were appropriate, the court was more lenient with Clair than that standard allows. See Brief for Petitioner at 42–43. Martel contends that the district court did not prejudice Clair or deny him any substantial rights when it denied his motion for new counsel. See id. at 58–60. Martel notes that Clair’s allegedly ineffective counsel filed a petition, conducted an evidentiary hearing, and engaged in discovery—all consistent with Clair’s due process rights. See id. at 47–48. In addition, Martel contends that the district court had cause for skepticism in reviewing Clair’s complaints. See id. at 49. For example, although Clair repeatedly complained that his counsel refused to publicize his case, he also acknowledged that his counsel reasonably feared the court would look at such publicity unfavorably. See id. Additionally, Martel argues that, although Clair claims his attorney failed to investigate new evidence, the evidence did not link Clair to the crime scene and did not undermine other evidence of his guilt. See id. at 51–52.

Clair, however, asserts that § 3006A's proper “interests of justice” standard demands much more than the Sixth Amendment’s mandate of due process. See Brief for Respondent at 30. Clair argues that the Ninth Circuit reasonably determined that the district court violated the interests of justice by making an uninformed decision to deny substitute counsel when it did not have adequate information. See id. at 33–34. Clair asserts the district court’s failure even to ask Clair’s disfavored counsel for a response concerning her client’s criticisms shows the inadequacy of the court’s review. See id. at 34. Additionally, Clair says the courts should not be attempting to determine the substantive merits of his claims in the pursuit of justice, but rather should amend the habeas petition in order for the district court to investigate and draw informed conclusions. See id. at 41. Clair argues the district court prevented him from analyzing newly uncovered evidence and was therefore working from an incomplete factual record. See id. at 43. Clair contends that no court can determine how his substantive rights were impacted, or whether he was prejudiced, without the district court first evaluating that new evidence. See id. at 43–44.

Conclusion

Petitioner Michael Martel argues that a court should only grant a capital defendant's motion for substitution of counsel if the counsel fails to meet certain statutory qualifications, has a conflict of interest, or if the attorney abandoned the client. Respondent Kenneth Clair counters that courts should decide substitution of counsel motions under an "interests of justice" standard and should therefore consider all relevant factors. The Supreme Court’s decision will resolve the proper standard to be used when a court considers a habeas petitioner’s request for new court-appointed counsel. This case will determine whether a district court has discretion to deny such a petition for substitute counsel without additional investigation, or whether further inquiry is required whenever an individual on death row expresses dissatisfaction with court-appointed counsel.

Authors

Prepared by: Amanda Hellenthal and Chuan Liu

Edited by: Natanya DeWeese

Additional Sources

Edited by