Paying for a Lawyer's Mistake with Your Life

August 3, 2010

Should a client suffer the consequences because his lawyers screwed up?  Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for the New York Times, wrote an interesting piece today about a new petition that asks this rather basic question.  In this case, the consequences are plenty severe, since the client in question – Cory R. Maples – is facing execution in Alabama.

Bad lawyering is one of the main reasons people end up on death row, rather than serving lesser sentences, but the bad lawyering in this case extended into the appeals process, when the high-priced law firm handling Mr. Maples’ appeal failed to meet a filing deadline due to a mailroom snafu. Should someone facing death be denied his chance to appeal because of poor communication in the bowels of some law firm’s New York offices?

There will always be a conflict in our justice system between the need to respect processes and procedures like filing deadlines, and the need for flexibility to ensure that verdicts and sentences are fair and accurate.   But lately, process and procedure have been getting the upper hand.

Our system’s rigid obsession with process may have reached its zenith in 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that an appeal could not be heard, even though it was only late because a judge had given attorneys the wrong deadline.   This was not a death penalty case, but in the ruling Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that didn’t matter.   He noted that a man (Ryan Heath Dickson) had been executed earlier that year without the Supreme Court ever looking at his petition, because it had been filed one day late.  “The rejected certiorari petition was Dickson’s first in this Court, and one can only speculate as to whether denial of that petition would have been a foregone conclusion,” Justice Thomas observed remorselessly.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court seemed to show a little more heart, giving Florida death row inmate Albert Holland the chance to show that extraordinary circumstances out of his control (lawyer negligence) caused a filing deadline to be missed.  We will see this Fall what the Supreme Court decides to do with this latest case.

Justice has to be more than mindlessly following a set of inflexible bureaucratic procedures, and inflicting death on someone because his lawyer committed some procedural error is not justice at all.