Martel v. Clair


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.

Oral argument: 
December 6, 2011

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 as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

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 the potentially important evidence.


Kenneth Clair was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of Linda Rodgers. The Supreme Court of California affirmed Clair’s death sentence in 1992. 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. After exhausting his state remedies, Clair filed an amended habeas petition. The district court substituted the Federal Public Defender ("FPD") as Clair’s court-appointed counsel in 1998. With the FPD’s assistance, Clair successfully moved for an evidentiary hearing and discovery. On March 16, 2005, Clair wrote to the district court stating that he no longer wanted the FPD as his court-appointed counsel. 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.

On June 16, 2005, Clair wrote another letter to the district court, requesting appointment of new counsel. This letter, similar to his March 16 letter, alleged that the FPD had been repeatedly inattentive to his case. Clair claimed that the FPD had failed to locate an alibi witness, filed disorganized briefs, and decided not to publicize his case. 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. 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. On the same day, the district court denied Clair’s habeas corpus petition on the merits. Subsequently, Clair filed an appeal seeking review of the denial of substitute counsel.

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. The Ninth Circuit regarded the FPD’s statement as a motion to withdraw, and in January 2006 appointed substitute counsel. 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. The district court denied the motion on May 21, 2007. On November 17, 2011, the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's denial of Clair’s habeas petition. The Ninth Circuit found that the district court abused its discretion when it denied Clair’s request for substitute counsel on June 30, 2005. 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.

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.


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. 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. 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. Martel argues that the Ninth Circuit, in granting Clair new habeas counsel, improperly looked to the “interests of justice” standard to fill this gap.

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. 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. 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. According to Martel, Congress intended lasting appointments for post-conviction counsel in order to minimize substitution of counsel. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

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. Martel contends that a habeas prisoner must not be allowed to delay litigation through illegitimate requests for substitution of counsel. Martel argues that courts should consider whether a defendant delayed in voicing concerns about counsel when deciding whether to grant the defendant's motion. 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. Because Clair did not allege any of these deficiencies in his motion, Martel asserts that his motion was insufficient to justify new counsel. Martel observes that a habeas motion allows the prisoner even fewer constitutional rights to effective counsel than does an appeal. Martel asserts that qualified counsel only needs to review the case record independently to avoid abandonment of a client in a habeas proceeding.

Clair argues that substitution of counsel was entirely appropriate, and that the Ninth Circuit’s remand order was a reasonable remedy. 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. Clair rejects Martel’s assertion that any new claims from Clair should be considered successive petitions under the AEDPA. 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. Moreover, Clair rejects Martel’s three factors as the only bases for substitution of counsel. Clair argues that the text of § 3599 allows the court to replace “similarly qualified counsel,” indicating that adequately qualified counsel may still be substituted. 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. Clair argues that the district court must have discretion to exercise its judgment.

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. Martel contends that the district court did not prejudice Clair or deny him any substantial rights when it denied his motion for new counsel. 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. In addition, Martel contends that the district court had cause for skepticism in reviewing Clair’s complaints. 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. 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.

Clair, however, asserts that § 3006A's proper “interests of justice” standard demands much more than the Sixth Amendment’s mandate of due process. 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. 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. 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. Clair argues the district court prevented him from analyzing newly uncovered evidence and was therefore working from an incomplete factual record. 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.


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. 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. 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.

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"). Before the enactment of the AEDPA, Martel contends, courts conducting habeas corpus proceedings were attentive to defendants’ procedural tactics generating frivolous petitions. He further argues that the AEDPA aims to reinforce the strong federal policy against undue delay of sentence execution. 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. 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.

On the contrary, Clair argues that allowing defendants to file motions for substitution of counsel in habeas proceedings will not cause undue delay. He contends a court has discretion to consider whether substitution of counsel would delay litigation when deciding a motion to substitute counsel. Clair argues that the amendment of his habeas petition is subject to Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. 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. Clair believes that Rule 15 sufficiently safeguards states' interests in the timely execution of their criminal judgments when a defendant moves to substitute counsel.

Finality, Comity, and Federalism

Martel argues that Clair’s successive habeas petitions undermine principles of finality, comity, and federalism. 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. 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. 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.

Clair argues that his substitution motion does not present a threat to the principles of finality, comity, or federalism. 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”. 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. Clair furtherclaims that there exists no evidence showing the “interest of justice” standard causes the delaying tactics that Martel and the states claim. 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.


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.


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