The Supreme Court holds that the lower courts failed to properly apply Martel v. Clair, 565 U. S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 1276 (2012), when they denied Christeson’s request to substitute appointed counsel in his federal habaeas case.
Christeson, a capital defendant pursing federal habeas relief, was appointed counsel under 18 U.S.C. § 3599. His petition was dismissed as untimely because appointed attorneys missed the filing deadline. Whether they did so because they miscalculated the deadline or because they failed to get around to dealing with Christeson’s case soon enough, they could not be expected to argue that Christeson was entitled to the equitable tolling of AEDPA’s statute of limitations, as that argument would be premised on their own malfeasance. Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631 (2010) (tolling based on counsel’s failure to satisfy AEDPA’s statute of limitations is available only for “serious instances of attorney misconduct”). Christeson therefore requested substitute counsel who would not be laboring under this conflict of interest, but the district court denied the request. (Slip op. at 1-4).
Clair held that a motion to substitute counsel appointed under § 3599 should be granted when it is in the “interests of justice,”132 S. Ct. at 1284. The relevant factors for reviewing the district court’s decision on a substitution motion include the motion’s timeliness and the asserted cause for the request, including the extent of the conflict between lawyer and client, 132 S. Ct. at 1287. In this case, the district court failed to acknowledge the conflict of interest that appointed counsel had, a conflict that Clair makes clear is grounds for substitution. (Slip op. at 5-7). And, under the circumstances in this case, the delay in seeking substitution, and the potential for abuse, weren’t grounds for denial of substitution. (Slip op. at 7-8). Thus, Christeson’s request for substitution should have been granted.
Justice Alito (joined by Thomas) dissents, saying the Court should not reverse without full briefing and argument because it isn’t clear appointed counsel did anything worse than miscalculate the filing deadline, which would fall short of what is needed to establish equitable tolling under Holland.
While it isn’t “plain” that any subsequent motion that substitute counsel might file on Christeson’s behalf will be “futile,” the Court notes Christeson “faces a host of procedural obstacles to having a federal court consider his habeas petition.” (Slip op. at 8).