On January 18, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63, holding that under the specific circumstances of this case, the unannounced and unauthorized abandonment of a criminal defendant by his attorneys provided "cause" to excuse the defendant's procedural default in failing to file a timely appeal from the denial of his posttrial petition.
Defendant Cory Maples was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama state court. Following his conviction, two attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell, acting pro bono, filed a petition for postconviction relief arguing (among other things) ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. Before the petition was decided, the two attorneys left Sullivan & Cromwell and abandoned their representation of Maples, without telling Maples and without requesting the required leave of the trial court. The trial court sent the notice of its denial of the petition to the two attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell, but the firm returned the notice unopened to the court. The court made no further mailing, and Maple's 42-day deadline for appealing the denial passed. When the Alabama Attorney General informed Maples of the missed deadline, new attorneys moved the trial court to reissue the order and restart the appeal clock. The trial court refused, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals denied a petition for mandamus for leave to file an out-of-time appeal, and the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. Maples sought federal habeas relief, but the federal district court denied his request based on the procedural default in state court, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that under the specific circumstances of this case, the unannounced and unauthorized abandonment of Maples by his attorneys provided "cause" to excuse the defendant's procedural default in state court. The Court noted that under its precedent, "cause" for excusing a procedural default exists where something external to the defendant, and therefore not attributable to him, impeded his efforts to comply with the state's procedural rule. The Court also reiterated that negligence by a prisoner's attorney does not constitute "cause" because the attorney is the prisoner's agent and the prisoner therefore bears the risk of the agent's negligent conduct. In this case, however, the attorneys' abandonment of the Maples severed the agency relationship, unknown to Maples, meaning that the failure to appeal could not be attributed to Maples. The Court therefore reversed the circuit court and remanded the case for examination of the issue of prejudice.
Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined.