March 05, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Martel v. Clair

On March 5, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Martel v. Clair, No. 10-1265, holding that courts should evaluate a motion to change counsel in capital cases using the same "interests of justice" standard applied in non-capital cases.

Respondent Kenneth Clair was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Linda Rodgers. The main evidence tying Clair to the crime came from statements that Clair made to his former girlfriend, which she had secretly recorded for the police. On direct review, the California Supreme Court upheld the verdict, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied review. Clair then commenced federal habeas proceedings by requesting the appointment of counsel under 18.U.S.C. § 3599, which the district court granted. After an evidentiary hearing in August 2004 and submission of post-hearing briefs in February 2005, Clair sent a letter to the district court stating that his attorneys "no longer . . . ha[d] [his] best interest at hand," and that he no longer wanted them to represent him. Clair complained that his attorneys were only seeking to overturn his death sentence rather than prove his innocence. Although Clair and his attorneys initially worked out this dispute, the issue arose again when Clair wrote a second letter to the district court asserting a "total break down of communication" and asserting that his attorneys refused to analyze new evidence purportedly discovered by an investigator that Clair had engaged. The district court denied Clair's motion for substitution without comment and denied his habeas petition.

Clair then sought review of his substitution motion, while his then-current attorneys filed a notice of appeal from the denial of his Habeas petition in the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit consolidated the appeals and vacated the district court's denial of Clair's request for new counsel and his habeas petition. The Ninth Circuit first held that the district court should have inquired into the complaints in Clair's second letter. It further held that, in light of this error, "the most reasonable solution" was to "treat Clair's current counsel as if he were the counsel who might have been appointed" and to allow him to make whatever submissions he would have made at that time.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. The Supreme Court first addressed the proper standard for a motion to substitute counsel in a capital case, which is not addressed by the applicable statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3599. The Court held that the proper standard derives from 18 U.S.C. § 3006A, which governs substitution of counsel in non-capital cases. Under that standard, a court should grant a motion for substitution if it is "in the interests of justice." Applying this standard, the Court disagreed with the Ninth Circuit's conclusion that the district court abused its discretion in denying Clair's second request for new counsel under the "interests of justice" standard. Although the Court was careful to explain that these cases are highly fact-dependent, it found persuasive that Clair's motion came on the eve of the district court's decision of his 10-year-old habeas petition and that the district court had, just six weeks earlier, inquired into Clair's relationship with his attorneys. The Court also held that any new evidence that Clair wished to advance—which was largely the thrust of his substitution motion—would have been precluded under the district court's prior order declining to permit further evidentiary submissions. Thus, notwithstanding the district court's failure to make a detailed inquiry into Clair's second motion to substitute, the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion.

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Download Opinion of the Court

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