Recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision Highlights Representation Problems in Alabama

On January 18, the U.S. Supreme Court (7-2) ordered a new hearing in federal court for Cory Maples, an Alabama death row inmate whose state and federal appeals had been rejected by lower courts because his lawyers quit and missed a critical filing deadline. Writing for six of the Court’s Justices, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg highlighted the poor quality of representation offered by the state in death penalty cases. The opinion stated, “Alabama sets low eligibility requirements for lawyers appointed to represent indigent capital defendants at trial…. Appointed counsel need only be a member of the Alabama bar and have ‘five years’ prior experience in the active practice of criminal law.’ Experience with capital cases is not required.” Justice Ginsburg also noted that Alabama is nearly alone in not guaranteeing representation in post-conviction proceedings, electing instead “to rely on the efforts of well-funded [out-of-state] volunteers.” Finally, the opinion emphasized that appointed counsel in death penalty cases are severely under compensated by the state: “Although death penalty litigation is plainly time intensive, the State capped at $1,000 fees recoverable by capital defense attorneys for out-of- court work. Even today, court-appointed attorneys receive only $70 per hour.” The Court finally noted that “On occasion, some prisoners sentenced to death receive no postconviction representation at all.” Maples’s underlying claim, which he was prevented from appealing because his absent lawyers missed the deadline, was that he received ineffective representation at trial. Neither of his trial counsel had ever tried the penalty phase of a capital case.

(U.S. Supreme Court, Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63, January 18, 2012; posted Jan. 26, 2012). See Representation and U.S. Supreme Court.