Supreme Court Denies Death Row Inmate’s Request for New Attorneys

Tom Ramstack – AHN News Legal Correspondent

Washington, D.C., United States (AHN) – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a California death row inmate cannot have his conviction overturned because he disagreed with the defense strategy his attorneys used.

The case appears to limit the control of defendants over their attorneys’ tactics.

The defendant was Kenneth Clair, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for burglary and murder.

He was represented by court-appointed attorneys because Clair could not afford to hire his own.

After Clair was convicted, his attorneys filed appeals and petitions of habeas corpus arguing their client should not be sentenced to death.

Clair said they should have been trying to appeal his conviction by arguing he was innocent of burglary and murder.

In 2005, he filed a petition to change federal public defenders.

A federal judge denied his request. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court judge’s decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously that the Court of Appeals was incorrect.

Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the court’s decision, said Clair waited too long to change attorneys. The judge in his case was two weeks away from ruling on his habeas corpus petition.

Habeas corpus refers to a request for a ruling that a defendant has been wrongfully convicted.

Kagan said Clair’s petition for new attorneys should be decided under the “interests of justice” standard.

The standard uses a test that balances factors such as whether defendants might lose their liberty, livelihoods, suffer damage to their reputations and a substantial question of law is presented.

Attorneys for California said a different standard should be used. They said Clair could be granted new attorneys only if he proved he was denied adequate representation by his court-appointed attorneys.

Kagan said California’s argument was unpersuasive.

“The state acknowledges, this test comes from … well, from nowhere,” Kagan wrote. “Inventiveness is often an admirable quality, but here we think the state overdoes it.”

The dispute arose after Clair complained in a letter to the court that his attorneys were ignoring evidence found by his prosecutor that might show he was innocent.

They should have been using the evidence to appeal his conviction, he said.

Instead, they continued arguing he should not be given the death penalty.

Initially, Clair and his attorneys reached an agreement and the defendant dropped his complaint. Later, the same dispute arose, prompting Clair to write a second letter to the court saying he wanted different attorneys.

When the second request was denied, Clair appealed, eventually reaching the Supreme Court.

The court’s decision Monday said Clair waited too long.

“The court received Clair’s second letter while putting the finishing touches on its denial of his habeas petition,” Kagan wrote. “The case was all over but the deciding; counsel, whether old or new, could do nothing more in the trial court proceedings. At that point and in that forum, Clair’s conflict with his lawyers no longer mattered. … The court was not required to appoint a new lawyer just so Clair could file a futile motion.”

Although the California attorney general won on most of his arguments, the Supreme Court’s frustration with the procedures followed in the case was obvious during oral arguments.

California’s deputy attorney general, Ward Campbell, argued that the “interests of justice” standard was the wrong way to determine whether criminal defendants should be granted new attorneys.

The standard made it too easy for defendants to delay proceedings against them by filing a complaint against their attorneys, he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether California’s attorney general was using a different test she described as a “sort of a made-up standard.”

She also asked, “Can you point to one case in which this standard has been used by any district court or court of appeals?”

Campbell replied, “No, I cannot.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked, “Where did you get it from?”

Campbell replied that it was derived from Supreme Court interpretations of the Sixth Amendment’s right to representation by counsel.

The case is Martel v. Clair.

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