Maples v. Thomas (10-63)

Oral argument: Oct. 4, 2011

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (Oct. 26, 2009)


Upon receiving a state-court-issued death sentence, petitioner Cory Maples submitted a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in post-conviction proceedings and petitioned for an evidentiary hearing. The court clerk took no action when two of three deliveries giving notice that the petition had been denied were returned because two of Maples’s attorneys of record had left their firm. Shortly thereafter, the deadline to submit a federal habeas claim lapsed. Maples now argues that the court clerk’s failure to notify him that his petition for an evidentiary hearing was denied caused the default and violated his due process rights. Additionally, he argues that the actions of his attorneys also constitute an external cause entitling him to federal habeas review. Respondent, the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, argues that the clerk successfully notified one attorney of record, and that Supreme Court precedent places the risk of attorney error on the petitioner during the post-conviction phase. This decision could affect how much risk clients bear for poor attorney performance, and whether a court clerk’s failure to take additional steps to notify attorneys of record constitutes an external cause to the defendant and valid excuse for procedural default.

Question presented

Whether the Eleventh Circuit properly held - in conflict with the decisions of the Supreme Court and other courts - that there was no “cause” to excuse any procedural default where petitioner was blameless for the default, the State's own conduct contributed to the default, and petitioner's attorneys of record were no longer functioning as his agents at the time of any default.


Whether a federal court can excuse a lapsed deadline for filing a habeas corpus petition because a court clerk failed to provide notice to two of petitioner’s three counsel of record and petitioner's attorneys could no longer be said to be acting on petitioner's behalf.


Maples was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death for killing two of his friends, each of whom he shot in the head with a .22 caliber rifle after a night of drinking. See Maples v. State, 758 So.2d 1, 14–15 (Ala. Crim. App. 1999). Once apprehended, Maples confessed to the police that he had been drinking but “didn’t feel very drunk,” shot both victims, and didn’t know why he had done it. See Maples v. Allen, 586 F.3d 879, 883 (11th Cir.Ala. 2009). Despite Maples’s attempt to argue that his acts did not constitute capital murder, the jury’s verdict sentenced him to death by a vote of ten to two. See Brief for Respondent, Kim T. Thomas, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, at 3–4; Maples 758 So.2d at 14, 29. On direct appeal, Maples’s conviction and death sentence were affirmed. See Ex parte Maples, 758 So.2d 81, 85 (Ala. 1999).

Maples then filed a petition for post-conviction relief pursuant to Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. See Maples, 586 F.3d at 884. The trial court issued an order (the “Rule 32 Order”) dismissing the petition seventeen months later. See id. The court clerk sent copies of the Rule 32 Order to Maples’s two attorneys of record, Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz from the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell (“S&C”), and to Maples’s local Alabama counsel, John Butler. See id. At this point, Munanka and Ingen-Housz had left S&C. See id. S&C had arranged for attorneys to assume Maples’s representation, but, nonetheless, the Rule 32 Order returned to the court clerk unopened with the message “Left Firm.” See id.; Brief for Respondent at 10. Meanwhile, Butler took no action at all. See Maples, 586 F.3d at 884. Therefore, no notice to appeal the dismissal was filed within the 42 days provided by Alabama Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(b)(1). See id.

John Hayden, the State’s attorney, wrote Maples directly to inform him that the deadline for appealing the Rule 32 Order had passed, but that Maples might still file a federal habeas corpus petition. See Maples, 586 F.3d at 884–85. Upon learning of this, Maples’s mother contacted S&C. See id. at 885. S&C then requested that the Rule 32 Order be reissued so that a timely appeal could be filed. See id. Unwilling to ignore counsels’ previous mistakes, the trial court denied the request. See id. Maples then petitioned the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus requesting an out-of-time appeal. See id. Both denied the requests. See id.

Meanwhile, Maples filed a federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 claiming ineffective assistance of counsel and that he was entitled to a jury instruction explaining manslaughter due to voluntary intoxication. See Maples, 586 F.3d at 884–85. The district court stayed the habeas petition until the state appellate courts denied Maples’s out-of-time appeal requests. See id. Thereupon, the district court denied Maples’s habeas petition. See id. Among the district court’s findings were that Maples’s failure to file a timely appeal of the dismissal of his Rule 32 petition procedurally defaulted his ineffective assistance claims, and that even if the default resulted from failures of counsel, because there is no constitutional right to post-conviction counsel, those failures do not establish adequate cause. See id.

Maples appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed. See id. at 895. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on March 21, 2011. See Maples v. Thomas, 131 S.Ct. 1718.


Federal courts use habeas corpus review to look past such things as a procedural default in state proceedings and to consider whether any constitutional right has been violated. During such a review, the Supreme Court weighs the costs of federal habeas review against equitable principles that would encourage excusing the default. See Brief for Petitioner Cory R. Maples at 19. Maples argues that because he was not personally at fault and had been effectively abandoned by counsel, there is adequate cause to excuse the default. See id. at 15–16. Respondent Commissioner asserts that interests in federalism and finality, together with the clear precedent set forth in Coleman v. Thompson, justify finding no cause. See Brief for Respondent at 15.

Importance of Equity in Habeas Review

In support of Maples, the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (“ACDLA”) emphasizes the history and importance of equity in habeas review and insists on the need for flexibility and circumstance-based analysis in such cases. See ACDLAs Brief at 14–16. Equity and justice, ACDLA argues, cry out against an absolute rule that would penalize defendants, such as Maples, for effective abandonment by his attorneys. See id. at 17.

Thomas, however, insists that there is no inequity in adhering to a clear rule allocating risk of attorney error to the petitioner. See Brief for Respondent at 15, 18. Texas and other states (“Texas”) supporting respondent argue that there is no workable limitation to the exception sought by Maples and that to find cause for procedural default here would create unnecessary uncertainty. See Texas’s Brief at 4, 6. To support these concerns, Texas points to recent petitions seeking to further expand the exception sought by Maples; floodgates, Texas argues, that could be opened by poking a hole in the Coleman rule. See id.

Satisfying Due Process

ACDLA argues that Maples’s case demonstrates the potential for due process violations under the capital punishment system in Alabama. See Brief at 20. Maples agrees, noting that Alabama’s capital punishment system is somewhat unique in its reliance on out-of-state counsel to represent indigent capital inmates during the post-conviction stage. See Brief for Petitioner at 16. This reliance, Maples argues, makes it “unreasonable” for court clerks to not take extra measures to confirm that notice reaches out-of-state attorneys of record. See id.

However, Thomas insists that due process is not compromised because Butler received notice, even if Ingen-Housz and Munanka did not. See Brief for Respondent at 28. Moreover, Thomas disagrees with any characterization that the role of local counsel in the Alabama system is negligible. See id. at 31. Texas adds that, since collateral review under state habeas corpus is not a constitutional right, neither is the right to effective assistance of counsel in such proceedings. See Brief of Texas at 2. Therefore, allocating the risk of attorney error to the petitioner does not violate the Constitution. See id.

Client Accountability for Attorney Conduct

Some amici decry the Alabama system as severely lacking qualified counsel for indigents, insisting that clients like Maples not be punished for having unqualified lawyers over whose competency they have no control. See Brief of Alabama Appellate Court Justices and Bar Presidents ("ABPJ") in Support of Petitioner at 7–8. Furthermore, ABPJ claims that the Alabama system does not adequately shoulder the costs of representing indigents, passing the costs directly to representation whose counsel suffers due to grossly inadequate compensation. See id. at 13. In fact, one local attorney interviewed declared he would rather go to jail than represent another capital defendant. See id. at 14. Thus, ABPJ and Maple argue that it would be inherently unjust, under such conditions, to impute Butler’s failures to Maples. See id. at 36; Brief for Petitioner at 35.

Texas, on the other hand, insists that both Butler and S&C always represented Maples during the post-conviction phase and thus Maples’s complaint lies not with the system but with his attorneys. See Brief of Texas at 7. Even so, Texas points out that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(i) provides that post-conviction attorney error does not offer grounds for relief, thereby foreclosing Maples’s request. See at 7, 11. To allow Maples a loophole by claiming that he did not have any actual representation at the time of the default would, Thomas claims, invite a flood of similar claims seeking to mask poor attorney advocacy as none at all. See Brief for Respondent at 54. Therefore, Thomas insists the state and federal governments’ interest in finality counsels against interpreting attorney conduct as a potentially “external cause.” See id. at 15.


The Supreme Court has held that in considering requests for federal habeas corpus petitions, federal courts may excuse a procedural default in state court when the petitioner can show an external cause for the default, and prejudice from the default. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 753 (1992). Conversely, a procedural default may not be excused when it can be attributed to the actions of the petitioner. See id. In this case, the Supreme Court considers what constitutes an adequate cause external to the petitioner.

First, the Supreme Court will consider whether the cause of Maples’s procedural default is “fairly attributable” to the court clerk’s failure to notify Maples that notice was not received by his pro bono attorneys. See Brief for Petitioner at 15. Second, the Court will consider whether the conduct of Maples’s attorneys may, in itself, constitute an adequate external cause for the petitioner’s procedural default in state court. See id. at 17.

Inadequate Notice as External Cause

First, Maples compares this case with Jones v. Flowers, 547 U.S. 220 (2006), a case of failed notice of divestment of a property interest. See Brief for Petitioner at 25–26. In such actions, the Supreme Court determined that a state may not “shrug [its] shoulders and say ‘I tried,’” upon learning that notice did not reach the intended recipient on first attempt. See id. at 26 (citing Jones at 229). Maples argues that if more than a simple attempt is required to provide adequate notice in a case of property interest, then due process requires meeting at least a similar threshold in a case concerning capital punishment. See Brief for Petitioner at 27. Second, Maples argues that the state’s interest in not providing notice is less in this case than in Jones. See id. Here, it would have been relatively easy to find the departed attorneys because their firm could have supplied the information. See id. at 27–28. Finally, Maples argues that the state took even fewer steps to notify him of the failure to contact his attorneys than the inadequate notice in Jones. See id. at 28–29.

Thomas argues that Maples’s reliance on Jones is misplaced, because there all forms of notice were returned. See Brief for Respondent at 29. Here, on the contrary, Maples’s local counsel received notice. See id. Moreover, Thomas notes that in Alabama notice is sufficient if received by any one counsel when a defendant has multiple attorneys. See id. Therefore, because Maples’s local attorney of record received notice, requirements of both state law and federal due process were satisfied. See id. at 15–16. As such, Maples is foreclosed from using the argument that the court clerk failed to provide him notice because his pro bono attorneys were unreachable. See id.

However, Maples counters that, because Alabama relies heavily on the use of out-of-state pro bono attorneys, the requirement for complying with due process should be greater than simply notifying the local attorney. See Brief for Petitioner at 29–30. Under Alabama’s current system, Maples notes that local attorneys often play no real role in representing the client. See id. Maples argues that, under Supreme Court precedent, this peculiar fact should be taken into account when addressing the unique circumstances surrounding each case of due process. See id. at 29–30; Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 314 (1950). In light of this, Maples argues that a state cannot reasonably rely on notice being adequate under circumstances where only the local attorney has received notice. See Brief for Petitioner at 30.

Thomas believes that Maples mischaracterizes the Alabama system and insists that local counsel plays a relevant and critical role. See Brief for Respondent at 31. In fact, Alabama bar admission requires that local attorneys accept all relevant court notices and be jointly and severally liable for their representation as local counsel. See id. This being the case, Thomas contends that the court clerk was reasonable to rely on notice being adequate when it reach Butler. See id. 32. Moreover, Thomas notes that the test in Coleman v. Thompson is two pronged. See id. at 19. Maples must show both “cause” and “actual prejudice.” See id. Thomas argues that the Court has described the second prong as requiring petitioners prove their innocence. See id. Therefore, Maples does not even attempt to meet the second prong in Coleman, and has failed to show that a denial of his habeas claim would constitute actual prejudice against him. See id. at 19–20.

Attorney Error as External Cause

In the alternative, Maples argues that, if the actions of the court clerk do not constitute a cause external to Maples which excuse the default, the actions of Maples’s pro bono attorneys do. See Brief for Petitioner at 35. Maples cites a concurrence in Hollandv. Florida, 139 S. Ct. 2549 (2010), stating that “common sense dictates that a litigant cannot be held constructively responsible for the conduct of an attorney who is not operating as his agent in any meaningful sense of that word.” See Brief for Petitioner at 35; Holland at 2568. Maples argues that attorney abandonment or disloyalty to a client constitutes cessation of that attorney's agency in any meaningful sense, and therefore, courts should not impute attorney error to the clients they serve. See Brief for Petitioner at 38; Rouse v. Lee, 339 F.3d 238, 250 n.14 (4th Cir. 2003).

However, Thomas contends that this case falls clearly within the precedent set in Coleman, which held that a petitioner “must bear the risk of [attorney] errors” in post-conviction actions. See Brief for Respondent at 21–22. Further, Thomas also relies on Holland, where the majority stated that a petitioner bears these risks “without qualification.” See id. at 37. Thomas reasons that the very definition of agency commands such risk allocation. See id. at 37–38. In identifying attorney error as an external cause of default, Thomas argues that Maples must show two things. See id. First, Maples must show that his attorneys had ceased their role as his agents and became “external to [his] defense.” See id. Second, Maples must show that, as external factors, his attorneys “impeded his efforts to comply with the state’s procedural rule." See id. (citing Carrier at 488). In fact, Thomas argues that Maples fails even the first prong: while Maples’s attorneys committed mistakes, they were never actually external to Maples’s case. See Brief for Respondent at 38. Despite the departure of Maples's pro bono attorneys of record from S&C, Thomas insists that Maples maintained an attorney-client relationship with another attorney at the firm, thereby maintaining that firm’s agency. See id.

In response to the state’s argument that Coleman puts the risk of attorney error on the client, Maples contends that Coleman is, in fact, more limited. See Brief for Petitioner at 36. Coleman, Maples says, held that attorney error in post-conviction proceedings cannot be “imputed to the State.” See id. In this sense, Maples argues that a petitioner may still be excused from default if the attorney error is external. See id. In other words, if an attorney abandons a client, this may not be imputed to the state because such counsel is not guaranteed by the state post-conviction, but such abandonment may still constitute an “external cause” excusing default. See id.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case could affect what constitutes an “external cause” and valid excuse for procedural default for the purposes of federal habeas review. Maples argues that the court clerk’s failure to notify him that his petition for an evidentiary hearing was denied was “external” and caused his procedural default, and violated his due process rights. Alternatively, he argues that when his counsel effectively abandoned him, this also excused the default. Commissioner Thomas argues that the clerk successfully notified one attorney of record, and that Supreme Court precedent places the risk of attorney error on the petitioner during the post-conviction phase.


Prepared by: Amanda Bradley and Brooks Kaufman

Edited by: Colin O'Regan 


The authors would like to thank former Supreme Court Reporter of Decisions Frank Wagner for his assistance in editing this preview.

Additional Sources

• New York Times, Sara Rimer: Questions of Death Row Justice for Poor People in Alabama (Mar. 01, 2000),

• LII: Habeas Corpus

• LII: Due Process

• LII: Fourteenth Amendment