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A Unanimous Compromise on Habeas Counsel

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The US Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit in yet another habeas case this morning.  Justice Kagan wrote the opinion for the Court in Martel v. Clair.

The case involved a last-minute request by petitioner to change attorneys just as the district judge was finishing up his opinion denying the petition.  The Ninth Circuit identified the correct "interest of justice" standard, says the high court, and then proceeded to botch its application.  This is a mixed result, accepting the defense's standard in name but toughening it up in practice.

"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."  It practice, that means this is one more issue that habeas petitioners can regularly litigate on appeal but on which they will very rarely prevail.  One of the factors on appeal is "the adequacy of the district court's inquiry into the defendant's complaint...."  To protect their judgments, government attorneys need to be alert to the need to create a record of this adequacy in the district court.

Another important factor, probably decisive in this case, is "the timeliness of the motion...."  Applying the "interest of justice" standard, the Supreme Court and the district court understood what the Ninth Circuit did not:  "Protecting against an abusive delay is an interest of justice."   Martel v. Clair, 565 U.S. ___ (2012) (slip op. at 12) (emphasis in original).

Expect that line to be quoted a lot.
The case now goes back to the Ninth for decision of the merits of the case, a decision the Ninth sat on for years and then ducked with its now-reversed disposition on the substitution motion.

Clair hit the trifecta on panels -- Pregerson, Reinhardt, and Wardlaw -- but the multi-year delay means that the Ninth is now faced with last term's Supreme Court decisions cracking down on claims defaulted in state courts and claims relying on evidence never presented to the state courts.  We will have to wait and see how this shakes out.

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"Protecting against an abusive delay is an interest of justice."

I am probably reading this too broadly, but this could be read to put the kibosh on court-created delays, not just litigant-created delays.

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