The inaugural brief filed before the U.S. Supreme Court by students in Yale Law School’s new Ethics Bureau clinic has brought an inmate on death row closer to a second chance at an appeal.
Cory Maples, who was convicted of two murders in 1997, missed the deadline to appeal his death row sentence in 2003 because his two lawyers at prominent New York City law firm Sullivan & Cromwell left the firm in 2002 and failed to pass the case along to their colleagues or inform Maples. No one had been designated to handle the appeal when it arrived at the firm, and Maples sought a second chance to appeal his case. His efforts drew the attention of the Ethics Bureau at the Law School, and seven of its student members drafted a brief advising the Supreme Court to let Maples appeal his sentence since Sullivan & Cromwell had failed to address his lawyers’ departure. The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Maples should not be blamed for missing the appeal deadline, and Lawrence Fox, a securities litigation lawyer who oversees Yale’s Ethics Bureau clinic, said the brief impacted the court’s decision.
Maples’ case attracted national media attention and rose to the Supreme Court in October because of the circumstances surrounding his failure to appeal the case.
The mailroom at Sullivan & Cromwell had returned letters sent to Maples’ attorneys because the two first-year associates left the firm without transferring the case to other attorneys. Meanwhile, Maples had 42 days to file his appeal, and the clock was ticking, said Lawrence Fox, a securities litigation lawyer who oversees Yale’s Ethics Bureau clinic.
“There are just a lot of cases of capital defendants in similar situations, where they can’t always get courts to hear their claims by no fault of their own,” said Stephanie Turner LAW ’12, who helped draft the brief. “In this case, this client’s lawyers basically totally left him hanging — he had no idea and there was nothing he could do about it.”
The clinic’s brief highlighted that Sullivan & Cromwell as a firm shared responsibility with its lawyers for ensuring that Maples’ case was handled properly, Turner said, adding that the two first-year associates were inexperienced in handling a death penalty case.
Ramya Kasturi LAW ’12, who also worked on the brief, said in an email Monday that the brief was notable for addressing the ethical responsibilities of all parties involved. Kasturi said she believed the brief, which was cited in the majority opinion written by Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Ginsburg, had a “noticeable impact” on the ruling.
“Beyond her direct citation to it, a lot of her argumentation resembled sections of our brief and her opinion certainly touched on many of the same issues,” Kasturi said.
Signatories of the brief said they thought the case addressed important issues of professional legal ethics.
Robert Cochran, a Pepperdine University School of Law professor who signed the brief, said the arguments raised in the brief cast doubt on the legal services Sullivan & Cromwell provided Maples, and that without the brief, the Supreme Court might have dismissed Maples’ claims.
Teresa Collett, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and another signatory, said she supported the brief because it honored Maples’ rights as a defendant. Collett added that she “could understand but not excuse” Sullivan & Cromwell’s failure to handle Maples’ case with care.
“We know we have a client who may be a great evil-doer, but even so, great evil-doers have rights in our system,” she said.
Turner called the final ruling a “victory” because it both acknowledged Maples’ right to another appeal and recognized “problems with the system.”
Still, Gregory Adams, a law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and signatory of the brief, said the case was unlikely to have a noticeable impact on the law because it pertained to a specific and extreme situation — lawyers abandoning their client.
Turner said she hopes the Maples case’s prominence will bring attention to the Law School’s Ethics Bureau clinic and attract similarly important cases in the future. The Maples trial has set a high standard for the clinic’s future work, Fox said.
The Ethics Bureau clinic launched in fall 2011.