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Supreme Court Ruling Cites Amicus Brief Written by YLS Ethics Bureau Students

An Alabama death-row inmate who lost his chance to appeal his murder conviction because his attorneys essentially abandoned him will now get that chance thanks, in part, to a meticulously researched amicus brief filed by students in the Ethics Bureau at Yale Law School. The U.S. Supreme Court cited the brief in a lengthy footnote to its Jan. 18 ruling in favor of Cory Maples in the case, Maples v. Thomas. The Ethics Bureau was established at the Law School this past spring.

“It is so gratifying (and a little dizzying) to have one of the very first projects undertaken by the Ethics Bureau at Yale be an amicus brief for the winning side in a United States Supreme Court case and for the Court to rely on the brief in so many ways,” said Yale Law School visiting lecturer Lawrence Fox, Ethics Bureau instructor and partner in the firm, Drinker Biddle & Reath.

In Washington D.C. to attend the oral arguments were (L-R) Alexander Fenner ’12, Kathryn Boudouris ’11, Michael Drezner ’12, Visiting Lecturer Lawrence Fox, Lawrence Kornreich ’12, Robin Maher (director of the Death Penalty Representation Project at the ABA), Ramya Kasturi ’12, and Stephanie Turner ’12. Not pictured, Carleen Zubrzycki ’12.

Maples, convicted of murdering two people in 1995, had been represented pro bono by two first-year associates in the New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell in arguing that his counsel at his initial trial was ineffective. When an Alabama court rejected those claims, it sent notices to the two lawyers, but the lawyers had left the firm without informing the court or Maples, so the notices were returned to the court clerk’s office unopened. Maples’ Alabama attorney also received notice of the ruling but did nothing. As a result, Maples missed the deadline for filing an appeal to federal courts, and when he asked for a waiver of that deadline, both the state and federal courts denied it. 

“Our amicus brief focused on the ethical violations of Maples’ two lawyers at Sullivan & Cromwell (they abandoned their client and did not properly withdraw as his counsel), of his local counsel in Alabama (he essentially said that he would not do any work on the case at all), and of the firm Sullivan & Cromwell (they continued to represent Maples even after it came to light that their lawyers had abandoned him, which created an impossible conflict of interest),” said Stephanie Turner ’12, one of seven students who worked on the brief.

“We argued that Mr. Maples was abandoned by his lawyers and that therefore, he shouldn’t suffer for their mistakes,” said Ramya Kasturi ’12.

The Supreme Court agreed and in a majority opinion (7-2) written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said that in view of the extraordinary facts of the case, it was not Maples’ fault for missing the deadline and that there was sufficient cause to excuse him.

Ginsburg referred directly to the students’ amicus brief in stating:

The unclear state of the record is perhaps not surprising, given Sullivan & Cromwell’s representation of Maples after the default. As amici for Maples explain, a significant conflict of interest arose for the firm once the crucial deadline passed.

“Generally, clients are held responsible for mistakes on the part of their lawyers, such as negligently forgetting to file a motion,” said Michael Drezner ’12, who, among other things, examined the role of Sullivan & Cromwell in its pro bono obligations. “Yet this case concerned the more serious question of whether the same responsibility should attach when a client is abandoned by his attorneys. The Supreme Court answered with a resounding no.”

The Court sent the case back to the federal courts, where Maples will be allowed to challenge his conviction.

“It was great to see the case through – from writing the amicus brief, to going to the oral argument, to finally hearing the Court’s ruling. It seems that courts don’t always take ethical violations seriously, so it was incredibly rewarding to see justice served in a capital case,” said Kasturi.

“It was certainly a high-profile moment but generally represents the fact that the Ethics Bureau serves an important and unique purpose in the legal community,” added Drezner. “We continually have sought to draw attention to ethical requirements on the part of lawyers and judges when they are most critical, and this case served as an excellent example of that effort.”

Other Yale Law School Ethics Bureau students who contributed to the Maples case were Alexander Fenner ’12, Kathryn Boudouris ’11, Lawrence Kornreich ’12, and Carleen Zubrzycki ’12.

Read the Maples v. Thomas opinion here.