On November 16, 2014, The Washington Post ran an article written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project titled When Lawyers Stumble, Only Their Clients Fall, about when court-appointed lawyers miss deadlines for filing death-penalty habeas corpus appeals. Federal habeas corpus appeals typically occur after the state appeals have been exhausted — it is a final review of the convictions.
But what happens to lawyers when they miss these deadlines? Apparently, nothing.
[A]n investigation by The Marshall Project has found that in at least 80 capital cases in which lawyers have missed the deadline — sometimes through remarkable incompetence or neglect — it is almost always the prisoner alone who suffers the consequences.
Among the dozens of attorneys who have borne some responsibility for those mistakes, only one has been sanctioned for missing the deadline by a professional disciplinary body, the investigation found. And that attorney was given a simple censure, one of the profession’s lowest forms of punishment.
And these same lawyers are able to seek appointments to new capital appeal cases because there is an “absence of any systematic monitoring or punishment for mistakes on which their clients’ lives might depend.”
In extreme cases, federal judges may suspend incompetent or unethical lawyers from practicing in their districts. But the primary instruments for lawyer oversight and discipline are state bar associations.
The state bar associations, it seems, are doing little if anything to oversee or discipline these lawyers. But now, the President may be getting involved.
In an interview, the outgoing United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., said that before he relinquishes his post, he will deliver a report to President Obama on problems with the death penalty around the country, and that the department will consider the issue of missed deadlines in the filing of habeas petitions.
‘When you’re talking about the state taking someone’s life, there has to be a great deal of flexibility within the system to deal with things like deadlines,’ Holder said. ‘If you rely on process to deny what could be a substantive claim, I worry about where that will lead us.’
Legal reform is so important to legal consumers, and especially to those whose lives are at stake.