Christeson v. Roper

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: January 20, 2015
  • Case #: 14-6873
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Per Curiam. Alito, J., filed dissenting opinion which Thomas, J., joined.
  • Full Text Opinion

Substitution of a habeas petitioner’s appointed counsel is permissible pursuant to Martel. v. Clair when appointed counsel faces a conflict of interest due to appointed counsel’s possible malfeasance in abandonment of petitioner’s case.

Petitioner was convicted of three counts of capital murder and received the death penalty for all three convictions in 1999. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the death penalty sentences in 2004. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2244(d)(1), the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), petitioner’s request for federal habeas relief had a one year statute of limitations which would expire on April 10, 2005. The District Court did not appoint petitioner counsel until nine months before the expiration of the statute of limitations. Court appointed counsel for petitioner did not meet with petitioner until more than six weeks after the statute of limitations on petitioner’s habeas request had expired. Petitioner’s appointed attorneys did not file the habeas petition until August 5, 2005, and it was denied without a certificate of appealability. Appointed counsel contacted two new attorneys to handle petitioner’s case seven years later.

The two attorneys suggested filing a Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b) motion to reopen petitioner’s final judgment because the statute of limitations was not equitably tolled, but the motion would be based on the appointed attorney’s malfeasance for untimely filing the habeas petition. The two new attorneys submitted a motion for substation of counsel, which was denied by the Circuit Court because it would not be in petitioner’s best interest. Petitioner appealed and the Eighth Circuit determined that the two new attorneys were not authorized to file an appeal on petitioner’s behalf and dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court found that 18 U.S.C. §3599 “entitles indigent defendants to the appointment of counsel in capital cases, including habeas corpus proceedings” and observed that a court “may 'replace' appointed counsel with 'similarly qualified counsel…upon motion' of the petitioner.” The Court further noted that in Martel v. Clair, 132 S.Ct. 1276 (2012), the Court had adopted a broader standard for reviewing petitions for substituting counsel in the interest of justice. The Court reversed the previous courts’ decision and held that the appointed attorneys did have a conflict of interest and that the District Court should have granted petitioner’s motion for a substitution of counsel.

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