Decision below (11th Cir No. 07-15187, 10/26/09)
Question Presented (by Scotusblog):
Whether the Eleventh Circuit properly held that there was no “cause” to excuse any procedural default where petitioner was blameless for the default, the state’s own conduct contributed to the default, and petitioner’s attorneys of record were no longer functioning as his agents at the time of any default.
After Maples lost his direct appeal in (Alabama) state court, he filed a collateral attack (equivalent to a § 974.06 motion) arguing ineffective assistance of trial counsel. He was represented on this motion by attorneys from New York. The motion was denied, and a copy of the decision was sent to the attorneys. But through a comedy of errors, they failed to file a timely appeal, and Alabama refused to allow an out-of-time appeal. “A Mailroom Mix-Up That Could Cost a Life,” the NYT dryly puts it in pre-grant coverage. (Some interesting details in that article, and in this post-grant report.) Maples then filed this 2254 petition, raising the IAC claim, but the 11th Circuit said that failure to file timely appeal worked a procedural default of the IAC claim, thus precluding federal review. (Technically, the untimely and therefore lost right of appeal meant that the IAC claim hadn’t been fully exhausted, which is a default of the issue. However, exhaustion was now impossible, because any attempt to return to state court to complete the litigation would be futile – because that court had already determined that Maples had defaulted his appeal. Got it? Maybe this will help: they’ve got him coming and going, so federal review is barred.)
That’s the basic background. Now, the ground rules. A claim that was, like Maples’ IAC claim, procedurally default in state court may be overcome on 2254 review by a showing of “cause” and “prejudice,” see generally, Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 485-86 (1986):
We think, then, that the question of cause for a procedural default does not turn on whether counsel erred or on the kind of error counsel may have made. So long as a defendant is represented by counsel whose performance is not constitutionally ineffective under the standard established in Strickland v. Washington, supra, we discern no inequity in requiring him to bear the risk of attorney error that results in a procedural default. …
Similarly, if the procedural default is the result of ineffective assistance of counsel, the Sixth Amendment itself requires that responsibility for the default be imputed to the State, which may not “conduc[t] trials at which persons who face incarceration must defend themselves without adequate legal assistance.” Cuyler v. Sullivan, 446 U. S. 335, 344 (1980). Ineffective assistance of counsel, then, is cause for a procedural default.
And there is the rub: No right to counsel exists on collateral attack, thus a defendant doesn’t have the right to effective assistance of counsel in that context. It follows that Maples wasn’t denied effective assistance of counsel on his defaulted claim, no matter how badly counsel screwed that pooch, and as a result he can’t show “cause” for the default. Also: Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991) (untimely state collateral-attack appeal, because counsel filed it 3 days late, amounted to procedural default barring federal habeas review; and, because ineffective assistance isn’t available to challenge collateral representation, “cause” for default can’t be shown). Maples doesn’t challenge this principle so much as he challenges its application to his particular facts. The state of Alabama, he argues in his cert petition, played a role in his lost time limit; his attorneys were not, on the particular facts, acting as his agents when the state court decision was sent to them.
The only odd thing is that you wouldn’t expect the Court to expend its resources on highly fact-contingent questions, unlikely to affect very many cases. There must be some broader principle at play. Your guess as to what that might be is as good as anyone’s. You might find a hint in this statement of the issue, from the NYT story noted above, which shows a genuine talent for framing an attention-grabbing question: “Whether missing a filing deadline may be excused when the inmate was blameless, the government’s actions were a contributing factor and the inmate’s lawyers had effectively stopped representing him?” Oh, and add to that it’s a capital offense.