Monday, October 03, 2011

Cory Maples's Golden Ticket

Jason Mazzone

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Maples v. Thomas. I blogged about the case earlier this year.

Petitioner Cory Maples was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama. Because of a screw-up in the mail room of a major law firm representing Mr. Maples pro bono, he missed the deadline to appeal the denial of his state petition for post-conviction relief. When Mr. Maples subsequently filed a federal habeas petition, the district court dismissed the petition on the ground that it was procedurally defaulted and there was no cause to excuse the default. The 11th Circuit affirmed. Mr. Maples argues that the default should be excused and his federal habeas petition allowed to proceed.

This case is an easy one to call. A mailroom foreclosing federal review in a death penalty case will not sit well with a majority of the Court. The Court is therefore very likely to reverse the 11th Circuit. But this is also a bad case in which to do anything more than to give the petitioner (as the Court sometimes does) a golden ticket. It will be very hard for the Court to craft general standards about when administrative errors in law offices constitute cause for a procedural default. The result, then, will probably be a decision that helps Mr. Maples but virtually nobody else. And if the Court does decide to create general standards, the result won't be pretty: expect an opinion that provides little practical guidance to lower court judges.

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