Thursday, January 19, 2012

Life, Justice, and the Republicans

Every so often we see a court case that illuminates the difference between two ideas of justice, and this week was one of those times.

The case involved Cory Maples, a young man in Alabama who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His court-appointed attorney made the kind of token effort you would expect of someone whose pay is limited to $1,000.00. Indeed, the trial lawyers actually admitted to the jury that they were "stumbling around in the dark," given their inexperience in capital cases. This would ordinarily be grounds for a challenge to the death sentence because he was denied his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel.

Since Alabama has no funding for court-appointed lawyers on appeal even in death penalty cases, Maples was forced to rely on two volunteer attorneys from one of the big New York law firms.

They literally abandoned the case: when they left their jobs they just left, not even telling their client or the court that they were out of it, so when the court in Alabama sent a notice to them that their request for post-conviction review had been denied it was just sent back to the clerk unopened. No lawyer, no hearing, no review of your death sentence.

The question before the Supreme Court this week was whether in this case, where the attorneys who represented the defendant abandoned the case, he was entitled to pursue an appeal of his death penalty. The question was so clear that even Roberts and Alito ruled in favor of the defendant, but what is most interesting is the dissent by the Scalia-Thomas twins. In their view, it doesn't matter that his lawyers in New York dropped the case, and maybe never even communicated with him, he is considered responsible for everything his lawyers knew and did.

The derelictions of the defense attorneys in this case are so shocking that even some of the most conservative justices ever to sit on the court ruled in favor of the defendant. What we know, though, is that Scalia and Thomas are the model for judicial appointments from the Republican Right. If you picture the vacancies likely to arise on the Court in the next five years, and if you consider the choices that Mitt Romney will be in a position to make if he is elected, you can see the paramount importance of this year's election to all who value justice in our courts.

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