Death Penalty

S&C’s Mail Room Mix-up Leads to Life-and-Death Cert Petition


A mail room mix-up at Sullivan & Cromwell has led to dismissal of a pro bono death penalty case and a U.S. Supreme Court cert petition seeking to undo the damage.

The petition filed in the case of Cory Maples argues the death row inmate should not be blamed for the mail room mistake that resulted in a missed deadline and a tossed appeal, the New York Times reports.

The problem began when an Alabama court sent two copies of a ruling in Maples’ case to two S&C associates who had left the law firm, the story explains. The mail room returned the mail unopened. A lawyer serving as local counsel received a copy of the ruling, but he did not pass it along to Maples—who never received a copy from the court—or to Sullivan & Cromwell.

Former Solicitor General Gregory Garre filed the cert petition. According to the Times, “Variations on Mr. Garre’s argument arrive at the Supreme Court all the time. For the most part, they are rejected, on a theory that is as casually accepted in criminal justice as it is offensive to principles of moral philosophy.” The theory is that a lawyer’s mistake is imputed to the client.

The cert petition cites a 2006 case, Jones v. Flowers, in which Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that government officials must try harder when receiving returned letters intended to notify homeowners that their homes will be sold for unpaid taxes. “This is especially true,” he wrote, “when, as here, the subject matter of the letter concerns such an important and irreversible prospect as the loss of a house.”

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