On “the uncommon facts presented here,” the Court finds that cause existed to excuse on federal habeas review Maples’ procedural default, namely his failure to file a timely appeal of his state (Alabama) postconviction petition.
The sole question this Court has taken up for review is whether, on the extraordinary facts of Maples’ case, there is “cause” to excuse the default. Maples maintains that there is, for the lawyers he believed to be vigilantly representing him had abandoned the case without leave of court, without informing Maples they could no longer represent him, and without securing any recorded substitution of counsel. We agree. Abandoned by counsel, Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time for his state postconviction petition, and he lacked a clue of any need to protect himself pro se. In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples’ death-cell door. Satisfied that the requisite cause has been shown, we reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment.
Following Maples’ capital conviction, two attorneys from “Biglaw powerhouse” Sullivan and Cromwell assumed representation and filed a postconviction petition in the Alabama trial court alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel. (A local Alabama attorney nominally represented Maples, but he was a mere figurehead and otherwise irrelevant to the discussion.) While the petition was pending, the attorneys went their separate ways, neglecting to so inform either Maples or the Alabama court. The judge denied the petition in due course, the clerk sent the denial to Sullivan and Cromwell, which dutifully returned the mail as undeliverable, and the deadline for filing a state appeal lapsed. The Alabama courts refused to reinstate the appeal. On to federal court, where navigating the shoals of habeas procedure is daunting under the best of circumstances. Procedural default of a claim in state court (here, failure to appeal timely) bars federal habeas review absent “cause” for and “prejudice” from the default. Key problem facing Maples: “Negligence on the part of a prisoner’s postconviction attorney does not qualify as ’cause,'” citing Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722 (1991). But the Court charts a course around, rather than through, this obstacle:
A markedly different situation is presented, however, when an attorney abandons his client without notice, and thereby occasions the default. Having severed the principalagent relationship, an attorney no longer acts, or fails to act, as the client’s representative. See 1 Restatement (Third) of Law Governing Lawyers §31, Comment f (1998) (“Withdrawal, whether proper or improper, terminates the lawyer’s authority to act for the client.”). His acts or omissions therefore “cannot fairly be attributed to [the client].” Coleman, 501 U. S., at 753. See, e.g., Jamison v. Lockhart, 975 F. 2d 1377, 1380 (CA8 1992) (attorney conduct may provide cause to excuse a state procedural default where, as a result of a conflict of interest, the attorney “ceased to be [petitioner’s] agent”); Porter v. State, 339 Ark. 15, 16–19, 2 S. W. 3d 73, 74–76 (1999) (finding “good cause” for petitioner’s failure to file a timely habeas petition where the petitioner’s attorney terminated his representation without notifying petitioner and without taking “any formal steps to withdraw as the attorney of record”).
We agree that, under agency principles, a client cannot be charged with the acts or omissions of an attorney who has abandoned him. Nor can a client be faulted for failing to act on his own behalf when he lacks reason to believe his attorneys of record, in fact, are not representing him. We therefore inquire whether Maples has shown that his attorneys of record abandoned him, thereby supplying the “extraordinary circumstances beyond his control,” ibid., necessary to lift the state procedural bar to his federal petition.
The Court has no real difficulty finding abandonment and, therefore, “ample cause, we hold, to excuse the default into which he was trapped when counsel of record abandoned him without a word of warning.” Even so, Maples isn’t ready to set foot on solid ground, not by a long shot. The matter is remanded for determination of “prejudice,” the other procedural default inquiry. Presumably, this means that the court on remand will determine whether trial counsel was indeed ineffective, as alleged in the defaulted claim – which may toss Maples onto different, equally treacherous shoals (“double deference”: AEDPA deference to the state court result; deference to challenged counsel’s decision-making). For present purposes it’s enough to say that the facts (death penalty; attorney abandonment; indisputably blameless litigant) make this result unique, as the Court itself suggests throughout its discussion. Mike Sacks, as usual, efficiently distills the essence of the matter: “The Court rarely takes cases that offer no opportunity to issue a broadly applicable rule of law, even if those cases present clear cases of injustice against specific individuals. But Maples’ case presented such an extraordinary set of facts — described in a short concurrence by Justice Samuel Alito as ‘a veritable perfect storm of misfortune, a most unlikely combination of events’ — that the Court intervened on Maples’ behalf.” The result is unusually fact-specific. Sui generis, as some like to say, which is Latin for, Good luck using this case for your client.
That said, the interested observer may want to keep a watchful eye trained on the currently pending Martinez v. Ryan, which is a variation on the cause-and-prejudice inquiry, in the context of claims defaulted in the course of postconviction litigation.