The Supreme Court on Monday asked an attorney disciplinary panel in Pennsylvania to sort out a dispute among lawyers over a death penalty appeal that an inmate has said he did not want filed.  In an order included with the Court’s second round of summer recess actions, the Justices referred the case of Michael E. Ballard to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Disciplinary Board, to investigate or take “action it finds appropriate.”

The Court’s file in the case, including several letters, news articles, and a state Supreme Court’s opinion, is contained here and here.  (The file must be read from front to back for continuity and sequence.)

The Ballard case arises from the murder of four people in Northampton Borough in Pennsylvania four years ago.  Michael Eric Ballard was convicted of the crimes and given four separate death sentences.  (The case is discussed fully in the state Supreme Court ruling included in the first part of the Court’s file.)

The case reached the Court in Washington on March 21, when a petition for review was filed by Marc Bookman, an attorney and the director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, in Philadelphia.  It asked the Court to consider the constitutionality of Pennsylvania death penalty procedures for reviewing mitigating circumstances.

On June 2, after a state prosecutor opposed the petition and the Court had set the case for consideration, Ballard wrote to the Court, saying he had not given anyone permission to appeal his case and that he had wanted “to waive my appeals.”  On June 23, the Court denied the petition, giving no reasons.  But in the same order, it directed Bookman to respond to Ballard’s letter.

On July 8, Bookman wrote to the Court, saying he had been asked to file the appeal by a lawyer with the federal public defender’s office, who said he had understood that Ballard wanted the petition filed.  The letter said that Ballard had spoken to the press, saying he did not want to die.  Bookman attached a copy of his professional background, and the ruling by the state supreme court ruling upholding the conviction and sentences.

On July 14, the district attorney for Northampton County, John M. Morganelli, wrote to the Court after obtaining permission to do so.  His letter quoted lawyers who had represented Ballard at his trial as saying that Ballard had not authorized a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Morganelli described the situation as “very troubling,” and he contended that public defenders in Philadelphia had a history of trying to intervene in death penalty cases without authorization.  He argued that “some sanction or reprimand should be considered.”  Attached to the letter was a letter from trial counsel.

On July 16, Bookman wrote a new letter to the Court, saying that “I have never faced an allegation of a disciplinary breach in more than thirty years of practice.”  He disputed some of Morganelli’s points and urged the Court to reject the suggestion for an investigation.

The Court’s order then followed, on Monday.

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Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court hands off feud about murder appeal, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 11, 2014, 12:15 PM),