Martel v. Clair

PETITIONER:Michael Martel, Warden
RESPONDENT:Kenneth Clair
LOCATION: Superior Court of Orange County

DOCKET NO.: 10-1265
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 565 US (2012)
GRANTED: Jun 27, 2011
ARGUED: Dec 06, 2011
DECIDED: Mar 05, 2012

Seth P. Waxman – for the respondent
Ward A. Campbell – for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Facts of the case: Kenneth Clair was sentenced to death in Orange County, Calif., in 1987 for the sexual assault, beating and strangulation of babysitter Linda Faye Rodgers. Clair filed a petition for habeas corpus. The district court appointed the federal public defender as Clair’s federal habeas counsel. The district court then stayed the federal proceedings to give Clair a chance to return to the California Supreme Court to “exhaust” his state remedies on some newly raised claims. Clair filed a second state habeas corpus petition in the California Supreme Court, which was denied. Clair then returned to federal court. On June 16, 2005, Clair wrote a letter to the court, requesting that new counsel be appointed. The court was aware that Clair was having problems with his counsel; only three months earlier it had received from him a letter alleging a longstanding pattern of inattention to his case. In response to that letter, the district court made inquiry of Clair’s counsel, who notified the court in April 2005 that they had spoken with Clair and that he was willing to have them continue to represent him for the time being.

The June 16th letter repeated allegations made in the previous letter, but also included a serious additional allegation: that a private investigator working on Clair’s behalf had located important physical evidence from the crime scene that had never been tested, and that his counsel, despite having been informed of the evidence, had made no effort to obtain it, analyze it or present it to the court. Clair’s private investigator sent the court a letter substantiating Clair’s claims. The court received and opened the private investigator’s letter, but returned it without filing it. Following receipt of Clair’s June 16th letter, however, the district court made no inquiry into the truth of Clair’s allegations or their potential impact on the case before it. The district judge without explanation denied the motion on the same day that he denied Clair’s petition. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, ruling that the district court abused its discretion.


Is a condemned state prisoner in federal habeas corpus proceedings entitled to replace his court-appointed counsel with another court-appointed lawyer because he expresses dissatisfaction and alleges that his counsel was failing to pursue potentially important evidence?

Media for Martel v. Clair

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 06, 2011 in Martel v. Clair

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 05, 2012 in Martel v. Clair

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kagan has our opinion this morning in case, 10-1265, Martel versus Clair.

Elena Kagan:

A federal statute called Section 3599 entitles indigent defendants to the appointment of counsel in capital cases, including habeas corpus proceedings.

Sometimes the attorney-client relationship sours and the defendant may then ask the Court to replace his appointed lawyer.

In this case we consider how a court should decide such a substitution motion.

We adopt the standard that Kenneth Clair, the habeas petitioner here suggests, but we still find that the trial court acted within its discretion in denying his request for a new lawyer.

Clair was convicted of murder in California state court and sentenced to death.

In 1993, he received federally appointed counsel so that he could bring a habeas challenge to his conviction and sentence.

For some years, the case followed the normal course.

His lawyers filed a habeas petition.

The District Court held an evidentiary hearing in August 2004 and by February 2005 the parties had wrapped up their briefing.

But in March 2005, Clair wrote to the Court to ask for new counsel alleging that his attorneys were trying only to reverse his death sentence and not to prove his innocence.

The Court asked for further information about the problem.

Following that inquiry, Clair met with his lawyers and decided that he wanted them to continue to represent him after all.

The Court accordingly said it would take no action on his old request.

But just six weeks later, Clair again asked for new counsel.

In his second letter, Clair repeated his earlier allegations and added a new one that his lawyers were refusing to investigate newly located physical evidence from the crime scene.

A couple of weeks later, the District Court denied Clair’s second request for a new lawyer without making further inquiry at the same time, as they denied his habeas petition.

The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the District Court abused its discretion by denying Clair’s second substitution motion without inquiring further into his complaints.

Our opinion first considers the standard that courts should apply in considering capital habeas petitioner’s motions to substitute counsel.

Oddly, the relevant statute that was Section 3599 just doesn’t answer this question.

It says that a person in Clair’s shoes may move for new counsel, but it does not specify how a court is to decide that motion.

Clair argues that a court should grant a substitution motion when doing so is in the interests of justice.

That standard comes from another federal statute, Section 3006A which today governs the appointment and substitution of counsel in non-capital cases.

By contrast, the State here argues that a court may substitute counsel only when the appointed lawyer has effectively stopped representing his client.

And that is so, the State claims even if the attorney-client relationship has badly deteriorated and a new lawyer can be substituted without significant delay.

We think that on this question, Clair is right.

Our analysis looks to the history of Section 3599.

Prior to that statute’s adoption, Section 3006A governs the appointment and substitution of counsel in all cases, both capital and non-capital and Section 3006A, as I just noted, provided that courts should decide substitution motions in the interests of justice.

In 1988, Congress enacted Section 3599 as a kind of spin-off which would apply only to capital cases.

The new statute in a whole raft of ways enhanced the quality of representation that people face the death penalty received, in recognition of the complexity of those cases and the seriousness of the penalty involved.

Elena Kagan:

Given this context, we cannot accept the State’s view that Section 3599 made it more difficult for capital defendants and habeas petitioners to replace their attorneys.

We think instead that under Section 3599, the familiar interests of justice standard applies in capital cases just as it did before and just as it does today in non-capital litigation, but we do not think that the District Court abused its discretion under that statute when it denied Clair’s second substitution motion.

In almost all cases, a judge must make an inquiry into a motion of this kind to figure out why a defendant thinks he needs a new attorney, but here, the District Court received Clair’s letter on the eve of deciding his 10-year-old habeas petition after telling the parties that it would not accept any further submissions in the case including any amendments to Clair’s habeas petition based on the new physical evidence.

In these circumstances, a change in lawyer could not have made any difference in the District Court.

Because the habeas litigation was well and truly over there we think the Court acted within its discretion in summarily denying Clair’s second substitution motion.

We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings.

Our decision is unanimous.