Yesterday, in Martel v. Clair (No. 10-1265), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that district judges in habeas cases have broad discretion in responding to defendants’ requests for new counsel. In so doing, the Court rejected an argument that a capital defendant may only replace his appointed lawyer if the defendant has suffered an actual or constructive denial of counsel. Rather, the Court held, capital defendants are subject to the same “interests of justice” standard that governs requests for new counsel by noncapital defendants. The Court further emphasized that the inquiry is highly context-specific and must be reviewed deferentially by appellate courts.
Here’s what happened.
Sentenced to death for murder in California state court, Clair initiated federal habeas proceedings. As required by 18 U.S.C. § 3599 for capital cases, the district judge appointed counsel for Clair. In due course, the court conducted an evidentiary hearing on Clair’s petition and received extensive briefing.
At some point, Clair’s relationship with his lawyers became strained, apparently due to Clair’s belief that the lawyers were focusing too much on his sentence and not enough on getting his conviction overturned. (And perhaps there is something to this — not only was the state’s case against Clair something less than a slam dunk, but California’s death processes are so notoriously slow that Clair might be forgiven for thinking that his sentence did not actually pose much of a threat.) In any event, after the hearing and the close of briefing, Clair requested the appointment of a new lawyer. His lawyers then apparently addressed his concerns, and the court decided to take no further action on the request. Six weeks later, however, Clair made a second request for substitute counsel, asserting that an investigator he had retained had discovered untested physical evidence from the crime scene, but that the lawyers were doing nothing to have the evidence analyzed. Two weeks later, the court simultaneously denied the request for new counsel and the underlying petition. The Ninth Circuit later reversed the decision on substitution.
In the Supreme Court, the state argued that a special standard for substitution should apply in capital cases under 18 U.S.C. § 3599. However, the Court decided that the same interest of justice standard should govern both types of cases, reasoning that there was no sound basis for making things harder for capital defendants.
The Court elaborated a bit on the “interests of justice” standard, but did not offer a clear test:
As its name betrays, the “interests of justice” standard contemplates a peculiarly context-specific inquiry. So we doubt that any attempt to provide a general definition of the standard would prove helpful. In reviewing substitution motions, the courts of appeals have pointed to several relevant considerations. Those factors may vary a bit from circuit to circuit, but generally include: the timeliness of the motion; the adequacy of the district court’s inquiry into the defendant’s complaint; and the asserted cause for that complaint, including the extent of the conflict or breakdown in communication between lawyer and client (and the client’s own responsibility, if any, for that conflict). See, e.g., United States v. Prime, 431 F. 3d 1147, 1154 (CA9 2005); United States v. Doe, 272 F. 3d 116, 122– 123 (CA2 2001); Hunter, 62 F. 3d, at 274; United States v. Welty, 674 F. 2d 185, 188 (CA3 1982). Because a trial court’s decision on substitution is so fact-specific, it deserves deference; a reviewing court may overturn it only for an abuse of discretion. (13)
In upholding the district judge’s denial of Clair’s request, the Court emphasized the futility of new counsel at the post-hearing stage of habeas proceedings. Because the district judge had closed briefing, there is nothing that new counsel could have done.