Maples v. Thomas

RESPONDENT:Kim T. Thomas, Interim Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections
LOCATION:U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 10-63
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 565 US (2012)
GRANTED: Mar 21, 2011
ARGUED: Oct 04, 2011
DECIDED: Jan 18, 2012

Gregory G. Garre – for the petitioner
John C. Neiman Jr. – Solicitor General of Alabama, for the respondent

Facts of the case

Cory Maples was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an Alabama jury in 1997. Alabama does not provide death row inmates with lawyers to appeal their convictions and sentences; they must rely on pro bono lawyers to represent them on appeal. Two associates from Sullivan & Cromwell, a New York law firm, agreed to represent Maples without charge. However the two associates subsequently left the firm, and when the Alabama court sent two copies of a ruling in Maples’ case to the firm’s mailroom it sent them back unopened. The firm had not notified the court or the mailroom that new lawyers had stepped in.

When Maples learned of the missed deadline, he immediately informed his step-mother, who contacted Sullivan & Cromwell. Other attorneys at that firm then sought leave to file an appeal notwithstanding the missed deadline, but that request was denied. The Alabama Supreme Court and later the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit also declined to waive the deadline for filing an appeal in his case.


Did the Eleventh Circuit properly hold that there was no “cause” to excuse any procedural default when the petitioner was blameless for the default, the State’s own conduct contributed to the default and the petitioner’s attorneys of record were no longer functioning as his agents at the time of any default?

Media for Maples v. Thomas

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 04, 2011 in Maples v. Thomas

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 18, 2012 in Maples v. Thomas

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has not been dawdling.

She has the opinion of the Court in three cases today.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The first case is Number 10-63, Maples v. Thomas.

Petitioner Cory Maples was sentenced to death after an Alabama jury found him guilty of capital murder.

On direct appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld his conviction and sentence.

Maples then filed a habeas corpus petition in the Alabama trial court.

He alleged that the State failed to secure his constitutional right to an effective trial attorney.

The two attorneys appointed to represent him at trial, Maple stated, lacked experience and were minimally paid, and as a result he asserted his counsel made crucial errors.

Maple state court petition was prepared and submitted by two New York attorneys serving pro bono both associated with the same New York based law firm.

Because the two New York lawyers were not admitted to the bar in Alabama, they enlisted an Alabama attorney to move their admission and serve as local counsel.

The Alabama attorney agreed with the caveat that he would undertake no substantive work in the case.

Maples’ attorneys filed his state court petition in August 2001.

In the summer of 2002, while the petition was still pending, the two New York lawyers left their law firm and commence employment that precluded them from service as Maples’ counsel.

Neither attorneys sought the Alabama trial court permission to withdraw and neither told Maples’ they would no longer able to represent him.

No other attorney at the law firm entered an appearance on Maples’ behalf.

Several months later, the Alabama trial court denied Maples’ habeas petition.

The court clerk set notice of the denial to the two New York attorneys.

Those notices were returned unopened by the law firms’ mailroom.

The clerk also sent a notice to a local counsel who assumed the New York lawyers would pursue an appeal.

He therefore took no action in response to the notice.

With no attorney of record in fact acting on Maples’ behalf, the time to appeal ran out.

The Alabama courts subsequently refused Maples’ request to file an out-of-time appeal.

Maples then filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, again asserting he had been denied his right to an effective trial attorney.

The District Court and the Eleventh Circuit rejected the petition relying on Maples’ procedural default in state court his failure to file a timely notice of appeal.

The sole question before this Court is whether on the extraordinary facts of this case, there is cause to excuse Maples state court default.

We hold that there is and therefore reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment.

Attorney negligence or oversight, we have held, does not provide cause to excuse a procedural default and we do not hold otherwise today.

But Maples alleges something graver than attorney oversight.

He contends that his attorneys abandon him.

“I was unknowingly left without an attorney of record,” he complains or still, he pleads, “I have no right to receive and in fact did not receive notice myself because on the record, I had counsel.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Absent any reason to believe I was unrepresented and therefore would have to act personally to preserve my right to appeal,” Maple stated, no just system would hold him accountable for the default.

We agree, the attorneys Maples thought were vigilantly representing him had abandoned his case.

They did not so informed Maples or the Alabama court nor did any other lawyer at the New York firm timely seek the Alabama court’s permission to serve as substitute counsel.

To no fault of his own, Maples and inmate on death row was left unrepresented at a critical time for his state habeas petition.

And he lacked any clue that he better fend for himself.

The uncommon combinations of mishaps in Maples’ case, we hold, provide just cause to excuse the procedural lapse in state court.

Justice Alito has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas joins.