U.S. Supreme Court

Kagan Opinion Hits Government 'Inventiveness' on Substitute Counsel Standard

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against a California inmate who contends he should have been permitted to change his court-appointed counsel just two weeks before a federal court denied his 10-year-old habeas petition.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the unanimous opinion (PDF) finding that a federal court did not abuse its discretion when it denied new counsel to Kenneth Clair, convicted of killing a neighbor during a 1984 burglary. Kagan said the courts should use an “interests of justice” standard in evaluating substitution of counsel motions by indigent defendants in capital cases, the same standard used in noncapital cases.

The government had argued for a different standard, allowing for substitution when counsel is completely denied. “The state acknowledges, this test comes from … well, from nowhere,” Kagan wrote. “Inventiveness is often an admirable quality, but here we think the state overdoes it.”

Clair had complained in two different letters to the court that his lawyers were trying to overturn his death sentence rather than prove his innocence. After the first letter, Clair patched up differences with his lawyers. But disagreements resurfaced, and Clair wrote the second letter, which also claimed the lawyers were not analyzing evidence found by his investigator that was being held by police and prosecutors.

Kagan said Clair was too late, since the court had informed the parties at the time that it would accept no further submissions. “The court received Clair’s second letter while putting the finishing touches on its denial of his habeas petition,” Kagan wrote. “The case was all over but the deciding; counsel, whether old or new, could do nothing more in the trial court proceedings. At that point and in that forum, Clair’s conflict with his lawyers no longer mattered. … The court was not required to appoint a new lawyer just so Clair could file a futile motion.”

The case is Martel v. Clair.

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