on Feb 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm
In Maples v. Thomas, the Court held that a death row inmate must be given a second chance to appeal his conviction after his lawyers abandoned him, causing him to miss a crucial filing deadline. The case received considerable attention, in part because the attorneys who fell down on the job were employed by Sullivan & Cromwell, one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms. The firm’s ethical lapses were chronicled in detail in an amicus brief filed on behalf of ninety legal ethics professors and practitioners, together with the Ethics Bureau at Yale Law School (“Ethics Amicus Brief”). That brief was cited in Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion, and played at least a small part in persuading the Court to give Maples a second chance. It also highlights the valuable service that a student clinic such as the Ethics Bureau can play in Supreme Court litigation.
All too often, amicus curiae briefs end up being “me too” briefs that don’t add to the Court’s understanding of an issue. But the Ethics Amicus Brief broke that mold by describing the ethical lapses of Sullivan & Cromwell itself, as opposed to the individual attorneys at that firm who abandoned representation of Maples—a subject that was not addressed by the parties. Not surprisingly, when arguing the case in the Eleventh Circuit, Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers primarily blamed the missed deadline on the state court system, and not on the firm or its attorneys. But, as the Ethics Amicus Brief explained, Sullivan & Cromwell’s continued involvement in the litigation was itself unethical, since the firm was operating under an obvious conflict of interest. Citing the Ethics Amicus Brief on this point, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “the firm’s interest in avoiding damage to its own reputation was at odds with Maples’ strongest argument—i.e., that his attorneys abandoned him, therefore he had cause to be relieved from the default. Yet Sullivan & Cromwell did not cede Maples’ representation to a new attorney, who could have made Maples’ abandonment argument plain to the Court of Appeals.”
The Ethics Amicus Brief was spearheaded by Professor Susan Martyn at Toledo Law School and the Ethics Bureau at Yale, a student clinic that regularly submits amicus briefs on ethical issues. The Bureau is led by attorney Lawrence Fox, who founded it to assist courts in identifying and analyzing ethical issues and to give law students some first-hand experience in the ethical obligations of the profession they will soon enter. As the Maples case illustrates, the Bureau is certainly fulfilling that mission.