In one of the first cases of the new term, the U.S. Supreme Court on October 4 will hear from attorneys for death-row inmate Cory Maples of Alabama, whose appeal was rejected by lower courts because his lawyers quit and missed a critical filing deadline in his state appeal. Copies of an Alabama court ruling in his case were sent to a volunteer New York law firm handling his appeals but were returned unopened to the court because the attorneys representing Maples had left the firm. Maples did not find out about the ruling or the fact that his attorneys had left until the deadline to file his state appeal had expired. Gregory Garre, Maples’ new attorney and former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, told the Court in a brief that the case “raises the shocking prospect that a man may be executed without any federal court review of serious constitutional claims due to a series of events for which all agree he was blameless.” Alabama’s Solicitor General, John C. Neiman Jr., replied that, “Maples is unquestionably guilty of murdering two people, and his conviction is now 15 years old. He has received some sort of judicial review of every claim he has made.” Maples was trying to challenge the competency of his original trial lawyers, who were inexperienced and offered only $1,000 each to prepare for his trial. They presented only 1 hour of testimony in his defense, and told the jury that they “may appear to be stumbling around in the dark.” The case is Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63.

In 2006 in an unrelated case, the Supreme Court considered how hard the government must try to ensure that notice of a consequential action was actually received. The case, Jones v. Flowers, considered the sale of a home for unpaid taxes. According the court ruling, if a letter is returned unopened, officials must try harder to reach the owner. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “This is especially true when, as here, the subject matter of the letter concerns such an important and irreversible prospect as the loss of a house.”

(R. Barnes, “Supreme Court confronts case of death row inmate whose lawyers quit his case,” Washington Post, September 29, 2011). See Representation, Arbitrariness, and U.S. Supreme Court. The Court has delayed two recent executions (Troy Davis in Georgia and Manuel Valle in Florida) for many hours, but has yet to explain what issues they were considering. In two other cases from Texas (Duane Buck and Cleve Foster), the Court stopped the executions at the eleventh hour, but has not decided whether to take the cases.